While it’s common knowledge that anti-piracy companies like to spy on the activities of pirates, ISPs aren’t regularly linked with the same kind of activity. However, with help from ISPs, a UK-based anti-piracy company says it operates a system that monitors consumption of pirate content over broadband networks by providing the ISPs with piracy intelligence.
For as long as peer-to-peer (P2P) networks such as BitTorrent have existed, anti-piracy companies have been monitoring the activities of those who use them.
This is to be expected. Not only do the companies have a vested interest in keeping an eye on what’s going on, by their very nature P2P networks are open and easily trackable.
The rise of streaming piracy – computer servers streaming video directly to end-users – has presented a new problem, however. Unlike P2P systems, there’s no easy way for an anti-piracy company to get in between the user and the server to see what’s going on. Only ISPs can see that data, which is why a recent interview caught our eye.
Friend MTS (FMTS) is an anti-piracy company based in Birmingham, UK. They’re perhaps best known for their live IPTV blocking work carried out on behalf of the Premier League, for which they have to partner to a greater or lesser extent with ISPs in the UK. FMTS tells them which servers to block, and the ISPs carry out it, broadly speaking.
However, in a recent interview, Simon Hanna of FMTS spoke about a different type of collaboration with ISPs, one that has the potential to raise eyebrows among privacy advocates, especially those who hoped all of their Internet traffic would remain completely their business.
Quite soon into the interview, Hanna correctly points out that broad availability of pirated content online tends to give an indication of how popular particular content is but isn’t always a great indicator of how much is actually being consumed.
“Consumption is a much more valuable indicator than pure availability of content and consumption has always been very difficult to monitor. People often throw numbers out but they are guesswork at best and we don’t really put a lot of faith in the numbers that have been made available in the past,” Hanna said.
With this in mind, FMTS say they have developed a system that allows them to work with content owners and ISPs to form a greater understanding of the consumption of media from online ‘pirate’ sources. The company does this by first tracking the servers down from where the content is being streamed and handing this information to the ISPs.
“We can see through our monitoring activities the range of servers that are available globally delivering this pirate content and we can provide that information to an ISP who are monitoring the flows of data requests in and out of the networks all day long,” Hanna explained.
“They can use these lists of IP addresses to really focus on consumption of content from those servers by the broadband subscribers within the ISP network and that will then give information around the scale of the problem.”
That’s probably a bit of a “wow” moment for many Internet subscribers who believed that once their traffic entered their ISP’s network it wouldn’t be closely monitored until it left to access a BitTorrent swarm, for example.
If FMTS’ statement is what it seems, some ISPs might be following their customers’ broadband usage habits a little bit more intimately than previously thought.
On the plus side, at least as far as individual subscribers are concerned, FMTS say they don’t look at or care about “the individuals themselves”. They’re not looking for any personally identifiable information and are just trying to get a handle on the volume of content being consumed.
Whether dual broadband/TV supplying companies are more interested in this data remains open to question, however.
“Because inevitably, if a large proportion of the ISP’s broadband subscribers are actually consuming content, they are not paying for the associated operator’s TV services,” Hanna added.
In many cases, of course, the broadband provider/ISP is also a supplier of TV content to the same customers – Sky, Virgin Media, and BT in the UK, for example. There’s no claim that these ISPs are indeed teaming up with FMTS in this project but any and all might be interested in the information it reportedly makes available.
“We work with content owners to basically go out and find pirate sources of the content. We can then real-time update these lists, feed this information into the ISPs and the ISPs can then use this information to generate the reporting real-time but with the flow monitoring, more in-depth reports of three-months plus worth of data, to actually get a real picture of consumption habits, both of TV channels but also specific events and pieces of content,” Hanna revealed.
FMTS says that monitoring consumption is important because it allows action previously taken to reduce availability to be measured at the end where it really matters.
“If you can then reduce the availability, then inevitably you should be able to reduce the consumption but you keep monitoring to observe that you do actually have this effect. If you can reduce the availability and reduce the consumption, chances are you would expect you would then preserve and reinforce your pay-TV revenues,” Hanna concluded.
The full interview, which covers many aspects of anti-piracy activity, from general enforcement to fingerprinting and watermarking, can be viewed here.
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