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‘Pirates find the weak link and exploit it’: Akamai’s anti-content theft action plan

Ian Munford, director of industry strategy at Akamai, offers his thoughts on how best to battle sports piracy, as well as offering insight into how the industry can become more sustainable.

22 February 2021 SportsPro

What kind of different content security piracy threats are we seeing globally?

Piracy has evolved significantly over the last few years. As content protection strategies have improved, so have the attack vectors used by the pirate groups to infringe rights held content. Whilst years of monitoring pirate distribution strategies have provided us with a reasonable grasp of how viewers access content, we are only just beginning to really understand the methods of attack. 

Using the latest cyber security monitoring techniques, we have observed a range of attack vectors from traditional means such as stream ripping, VPN abuse, link sharing and token theft etc, through to more sophisticated methods such as modding APK’s, attacking player API’s, overwhelming DRM servers with DDOS attacks, hacking editing platforms and many others. Some of our customers, especially those with sought after sports rights, will see sustained probes and attacks evolve over very short periods. As defences are put in place to thwart one attack vector, the pirates regroup and try others in minutes. The strategy is to find a weak link and exploit it.

What can and should be done to combat illicit services?

Certain rights distributors have already shown a way to more effectively combat video piracy. They pursue a strategy of unrelenting identification and prosecution of the larger pirate gangs coupled with a comprehensive approach to protecting their entire technical and operational workflow. The challenge with piracy is we live in a global rights economy and whilst some distributors take the problem seriously, others less so. Whether this is as a result of a lack of understanding or the means to tackle piracy, the result is the same. The pirates find the weak link and exploit it. Some would argue that the industry has created a rod for its own back and if access to content is less prohibitive, then less piracy occurs. This stands to reason but requires a complete overhaul of the sports rights economy and won’t necessarily solve the issue. Wherever a fee is being charged, theft will occur.

To get some way towards reducing piracy, the industry needs to take some simple steps. We need to improve the quality and dissemination of data relating to piracy so executives, regulators and politicians can take informed decisions concerning the extent and impact of piracy. Without this, we are shooting in the dark. Rights holders need to insist on adequate protection strategies relating to their content globally. This occurs today but very often we see minimum rudimentary requirements, which won’t stop the attack vectors we witness. Finally, we need better collaboration across the value chain. Piracy is not an issue that any one company can solve and we need to ensure greater transparency.

Does shutting down pirate services increase legitimate viewing?

Simply shutting down a pirate service in itself won’t necessarily make a marked difference to legitimate viewing. The modes and motivations of piracy are complex, as are the reasons why seemingly law abiding citizens who would never ordinarily participate in petty theft are happy to so with content. If a pirate service is shut down without the principles being caught and prosecuted, they can simply spin up a new service within minutes. For organised pirate gangs, even this isn’t a deterrent. For viewers, the drivers to watch pirated content are equally varied. For some, there is clearly an access or financial driver and the anonymity of the internet is enough for them to seek out pirated content. For others ignorance or ambivalence is often cited. Whatever the driver, if pirated content is allowed to leak from the workflow, then piracy will occur.

What kind of business scenarios are we looking at for broadcasters and rights holders if the industry only maintains the status quo on its approach of piracy?

It’s for others to describe the impact that piracy is having and will have on their business models but if piracy is allowed to continue as is, then some things are clear. Firstly, the concept of exclusivity needs to be examined carefully. As others have stated, if rights aren’t exclusive then their value diminishes. More importantly, with competitive pressures for audiences intensifying due to new OTT services, legitimate distributors are also competing with pirate operators who are capable of delivering exemplary viewing experiences and generating extremely high margins. The impact on legitimate channels has been job losses, channel closures and even entire series being cancelled.  

What technological advances are emerging to deal with the issue?

As described previously, technology is only part of the answer but we are seeing some great advances being made in areas such as situational awareness, piracy detection and removal, improved workflow protection, as well as protection of viewer credentials. For example in the sports industry, Akamai launched a new service to monitor and evaluate all piracy activity through a combination of deep layer seven inspection of over 60 unique heuristics coupled with automated deep learning. When combined with Akamai’s conditional mitigation of infringing streams – the service can detect piracy activity across a range of attack vectors and revoke access in seconds. As we all know with sport, time matters and its services like this which can make a real difference. 

With the rapid increase in digital broadcast and security, what kind of impact is that having on emissions?

The pandemic compelled audiences across the world to turn towards online services for their entertainment, news and information. In one month, we witnessed an increase in traffic similar to the growth expected across an entire year. Of course, we also witnessed an increase in the power demand required to serve online content: servers, network hardware, and the energy needed to keep it all cool. The good news is that even with this unprecedented demand, Akamai for one was able to keep our emissions in check and our reduction goals on track. This is as a direct result of a number of targeted actions taken by the company over many years. As an example, we have a persistent engineering programme in place to continuously improve platform efficiency and implementing on the ground power savings. In 2020, we promoted supplier education for providers through the Renewable Energy Buyers Alliance LESSEN Program. We also worked directly with our partners to provide details on the benefits of incorporating renewable energy within their sites. Marginal improvements really work.

How can digital services be more sustainable?

Despite the positive efforts so far, the question still remains what can companies like Akamai do on top of supporting legislative efforts, efficiency engineering, implementing power saving programmes, and education? There isn’t a simple answer to this, but as an industry we believe we can do more.

As an example, like most cloud service companies, Akamai has a large presence in Virginia or specifically Loudoun County, also known as data centre valley. More than 70 per cent of worldwide internet traffic passes through this area. A few months ahead of the pandemic peak, Akamai and several like-minded clean energy businesses helped lead the way on clean energy in Virginia, which resulted in the landmark Virginia Clean Economy Act (VCEA) putting the state on a clear path to 100 oer cent zero-carbon electricity by 2045. This is a major win but we believe we can do more.

One initiative Akamai is pursuing is to invest in our own off-site renewable energy projects to support all of our operations. In partnership with sPower, Akamai is happy to announce that the Highlander Solar Energy Station in Northern Virginia is now online and supports 100 per cent of our operations in the commonwealth. One of the most vital intersections of the world's data and a critical metropolitan area for Akamai is now running on 100 per cent renewable energy. With more initiatives like this, we can make sure our digital services are not only sustainable, but can provide a positive catalyst for change for other industries.

Ian Munford is director of industry strategy at Akamai.

For more information on Akamai’s content security solutions, click here or contact Akamai here.


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