Research: Pirate subscription services top $1 billion

Aug. 6, 2020
Pirate subscription services are now a billion-dollar U.S. Industry, a joint Digital Citizens Alliance-NAGRA report finds.

Digital Citizens Alliance and NAGRA today jointly released an investigative report showcasing how illegal piracy subscription services in the United States have grown into a billion-dollar industry that steals from creators, circumvents legitimate TV operators, and poses risks for consumers.

The “Money for Nothing” report details how a sophisticated ecosystem of thousands of retailers and wholesalers –through content theft and enabled by legal businesses–provides illicit piracy services to at least nine million U.S. households. 

Per the Digital Citizens Alliance and NAGRA:  

"At over $1 billion, so-called pirate subscription Internet Protocol Television (PS IPTV) services represent a large - and lucrative - illicit U.S. industry."  

As noted by the authors, the report brings into focus lesser known aspects of the pirate subscription IPTV ecosystem, examining infrastructure, supply chain, revenues and profit margins, as well as ad-financed pirate IPTV service business models.

It also raises alarms about how piracy poses personal and financial risks to consumers, from malware spread through pirate apps to distribution of unlawful content that may put viewers at risk, such as terrorist channels that are banned from being broadcast in the United States. 

The Digital Citizens Alliance is a nonprofit, 501(c)(6) organization that is a consumer- oriented coalition focused on educating the public and policymakers on the threats that consumers face on the Internet. Per the coalition's mission statement, "Digital Citizens wants to create a dialogue on the importance for Internet stakeholders— individuals, government and industry—to make the Web a safer place."

Based in Washington, DC, the Digital Citizens Alliance counts among its supporters: private citizens, the health, pharmaceutical and creative industries as well as online safety experts and other communities focused on Internet safety.  

“When it comes to piracy, the scope of the risk to consumers, small businesses and others is in direct proportion to the size of the industry, which is why we need to stop the reach and depth of this ecosystem before it grows even bigger,” says Digital Citizens Alliance Executive Director Tom Galvin. “This report underscores how outdated laws and a lack of focus and enforcement has let thieves, hackers, and scammers create a major criminal enterprise.”

“Understanding the impact and tactics involved in the business of subscription IPTV piracy outlined in this report is the first step in addressing the evolving fight to protect content, the most valuable asset in the media and entertainment industry,” adds Michael Sharp, Director, Data Analytics, Anti-Piracy Services for NAGRA.

NAGRA, the digital TV division of the Kudelski Group (SIX:KUD.S), provides security and multiscreen user experience systems for the monetization of digital media. The company provides content providers and DTV operators worldwide with secure, open and integrated platforms and applications over broadcast, broadband and mobile platforms, and prides itself on "enabling compelling and personalized viewing experiences."

NAGRA's Sharp continues, “We applaud Digital Citizens Alliance for bringing the issue to light as we continue to support content owners and service providers in effectively disrupting pirate activity–through our expertise, our wide range of anti-piracy solutions and the intelligence we have gathered over years of examining piracy ecosystems–to ultimately keep viewers in the legitimate content value chain.”

The jointly produced “Money for Nothing” report, which relies heavily on NAGRA’s decades of experience in investigating how piracy has evolved and grown, outlines an elaborate ecosystem. Keynote points of the report include the following:

  • An estimated 9 million fixed broadband subscribers in the U.S. use a pirate subscription IPTV service. They get these services from at least 3,500 U.S.-facing storefront websites, social media pages, and stores within online marketplaces that sell services.
  • A $1 billion industry in U.S. piracy subscriptions alone. The overall piracy industry is in fact much larger when the sale of pirate streaming devices used to receive the content and ad-financed piracy are included.
  • Because the providers of these services pay nothing for the programming that makes up their core product, they operate with estimated profit margins that range from 56 percent (“Retailers”) to 85 percent (“Wholesalers”).
  • The ecosystem also depends upon legitimate players, including hosting services, payment processors, and social media. The extent to which these legitimate players are aware of their role is a subject of debate.

In addition, the report highlights how pirates generate revenue by partnering with hackers to install malware within free apps that expose consumers to risk of theft of their personal and financial data, cryptocurrency mining, adware, ransomware, and botnets using computers to perform distributed denial-of-service (DoS) attacks. These risks have been documented by Digital Citizens Alliance and warned about by the Federal Trade Commission.

NAGRA also found a scheme where the residential Internet connections of pirate IPTV customers could be turned over to other users–who could potentially use them for illegal activities beyond their control, such as accessing child pornography, committing fraud, or participating in cyber-attacks.

And in an alarming development, illegal IPTV services enabled Al-Manar, a channel labeled a “Specially Designated Global Terrorist entity,” to skirt a U.S. ban. While these issues are not the focus of the report, Digital Citizens Alliance says it intends to conduct further investigation, and ask the US federal authorities to investigate this.

“Given that some players offering Piracy Subscription IPTV services openly brag about their profits online, it’s clear that law enforcement is not their biggest concern. That is in part due to outdated laws. Given that piracy is not only a source of revenue loss to creators but an established risk to consumers, it’s time to take this billion-dollar black market seriously,” concludes Digital Citizens' Galvin.

Download a copy of the report here.

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