December 19, 2020

Digital Television: A Swiss Lab Tracks Hacked Movies on the Web

NAGRA, the digital TV division of the Kudelski Group, has become one of the major players in the fight against video and sound piracy. 2020 has been the year of several big deals, from Europe to Brazil. Set-top-boxes line the shelves of a testing laboratory located on the premises of the Kudelski Group in Cheseaux, […]

NAGRA, the digital TV division of the Kudelski Group, has become one of the major players in the fight against video and sound piracy. 2020 has been the year of several big deals, from Europe to Brazil.

Set-top-boxes line the shelves of a testing laboratory located on the premises of the Kudelski Group in Cheseaux, near Lausanne (Switzerland). Do not photograph: visible marks are clearly taped on the devices suspected of making movies, series or sports matches available to the public illegally by violating copyright laws. These boxes are analyzed in order to trace the source of the broadcasts and determine their possible illegal nature.

From recorder to investigations

Since 2003, Pascal Métral, a former lawyer at the bar, has led NAGRA’s legal anti-piracy activities. The brand developed prestigious recorders that appeared in the 1950s, once analog, now digital and miniaturized, which have delighted radio reporters or spy services. “Nagra” means “he records” in Polish.

On November 10, the company has been associated with a resounding judicial and police event: the shutdown of the Kbox service, suspected of having hacked thousands of movies and series made available via streaming to 20,000 French-speaking households. The investigators arrested the three managers of the KboxServ company, based in Renens. The main suspect, a computer specialist, is still in preventive detention.

Old technology

That a name historically linked to renowned recorders ends up as a complaining party in such a case is intriguing. Pascal Métral explains: “We propose technological monitoring against piracy for various clients, mainly abroad.” For French-speaking people, the best known of these customers is Canal+, a famous private French TV operator and international broadcaster of paid packages of series, movies and sports programs. The partnership between the Swiss technology company and the television company was further demonstrated in the Kbox affair.

The two companies have collaborated since 1989. It was the era of scrambled television channels and set-top boxes protected by smart cards. Nagravision then designated a jamming system deemed to be more resistant to acts of piracy than its main competitors. Canal + and Kudelski had even created, in 1993, a joint subsidiary to develop encryption techniques for television broadcasts. The two companies then signed various collaboration agreements as technology progressed.

The reign of streaming

The war against piracy was symbolized, in the 2010s, by lawsuits linked to illegal modifications of decoders, Dreambox being one of the most famous examples. Legal battles have been won, for example in Germany, in connection with Sky channel. But Kudelski and Canal + also suffered defeats before the Swiss Federal Court in 2012. The incriminated sales of hacked decoders date back to 2006-2007, before Swiss law punished the violation of technical measures to protect movies or series broadcast.

For several years now, anti-piracy specialists have had to deal with another battlefield: streaming, that enables direct broadcasting from massive servers of images and sounds using the internet channels with multiplied capacities. This is the context of the Kbox affair, a first of its kind in Switzerland but not internationally: “It is a sort of illegal French-speaking Netflix, which sells programs that it has hacked. At this scale, this is the first time we observe in the country such an important offering of hacked video on demand (VOD) streaming from Switzerland,” says Pascal Métral.

International investigations

NAGRA, with its 18 anti-piracy experts based in Latin and North America, Europe and Asia, has also been at the center of major international investigations. In June 2020, the Vaud-based company appeared in a press release alongside the Spanish and German football leagues as well as ACE, the main organization of global producers and broadcasters (Disney, Warner, HBO, Netflix, Canal + …).

The text announced the dismantling of an illegal network of series, movies and sports broadcasts that used 50 servers in Europe and reached 2 million consumers. On November 19, 2020, another statement involving NAGRA described an operation focused on Brazil, with the shutdown of an illegal network of 26 million users.

NAGRA’s anti-piracy department handles about 50 cases a year. To the question of the commercial profitability of this activity, Pascal Métral does not communicate a precise amount but refers to several million Swiss francs. Financial stake is enormous. Brice Daumin, director of Canal + Switzerland, reminds that piracy costs hundreds of millions of francs a year for the entire group, which has 24 million customers in 40 countries.

Philippe Maspoli/24 Heures – all rights reserved