A Tech Fix for Online Piracy?

On Sept. 17, the WBO Light Middleweight Championship fight between Canelo Alvarez and Liam Smith was offered via pay-per-view at $65 a pop, with several news outlets estimating that maybe 300,000 people shelled out money for the boxing match.

But how many people watched the fight via illegal streaming online? An estimated 1.82 million, according to data from antipiracy company VFT Solutions, which tracks online streams in real time. VFT found a total of 710 illegal streams of the fight, with one stream alone drawing more than twice as many viewers as had paid for the legal telecast.

And PPV boxing is just the tip of the illegal streaming iceberg: VFT sees regular, linear and OTT broadcasts of everything from the NFL to college football to English Premier League and UEFA Champions League soccer streamed illegally on a regular basis. Millions of consumers are taking advantage of these free streams, risking malware and dealing with poor quality, rather than paying for the channels.


Moreover, more than 12,000 pirated HDTV streams were served in the past month, according to piracy-monitoring firm Friend MTS, which shows that even 1080p resolution isn’t safely in the realm of pay TV operators.

To date, content owners have been left dealing with this problem by employing the Digital Millennium Copyright Act takedown process, with websites, search engines and hosting companies notified of the offending streams. But that whack-a-mole approach can’t eliminate every offending stream, due to the sheer volume of what’s become available.

Enter Cisco Systems.

The networking technology company is now testing a solution to fight streaming piracy that works directly with the service providers distributing content, rather than rightsholders. Called Streaming Piracy Prevention (SPP ), the service’s technology locates illicit content on both the open Internet and in closed networks that might require a subscription.

Once identified, the source is tracked down using forensic watermarking and then shuttered via Cisco’s video security system, “essentially revoking entitlement,” according to Amit Wohl, the video security product manager in Cisco Systems’ service provider organization.

“The ability to do this in near-real time is what makes this solution different, better and more effective at dealing with piracy, especially when you talk about live events,” Wohl said. “The ability to detect that someone is [pirating] an event from your network and dealing with it within seconds is what makes the difference.”


Asked how the solution differentiates between legal and illegal streams, Wohl stressed that Cisco’s team “knows where to find illegal content.” Sites and services that stream illegally don’t hide themselves all that well, he said.

“Once we know where they are, we can sample the video and compare it with the [legal] content,” Wohl said. “If it’s coming from our service … and once we know the identity of the source device, we can shut it down.”

Essentially, development of Cisco’s offering — which is currently in pilot testing — came about after the company’s service- provider customers expressed concern that their services were being used to steal content. Since legal remedies haven’t been able to keep up with the illegal streams — and as pirate services begin delivering channel packages to connected devices and IPTV set-tops — a technological solution became the best recourse, Wohl said.

There may not be a silver bullet to eliminate digital piracy, but Cisco and Wohl said they hope their solution will at least put a dent into the problem, if it goes to market.