GUEST COLUMN: How Telegram is fuelling streaming piracy

The app may be causing substantial revenue loss for content providers & operators.

New Delhi: The popular messaging app, Telegram, is fast becoming the leading source of pirated content throughout Asia - and the cause of substantial revenue loss for content providers and operators.

Users of the platform, which provides end-to-end encryption, can conceal their identity to share texts, videos, or other files relating to copyrighted content. Given that Telegram is popular with millions of active users, intuitive, and offers its users privacy, it is no surprise that streaming pirates exploit Telegram.

The latest Telegram statistics reveal that in January 2021 it had over 500 million monthly active users - 38 per cent from Asia - and it was also the most downloaded app across both the App Store and Google Play globally with more than 63 million downloads. According to App Annie, it is the most popular social networking app in Malaysia and ranks third in India.

Telegram appeals to pirates because it allows them to disseminate information easily and speedily to huge, encrypted private chat groups - as large as 200,000 people – and its channels can attract millions of subscribers. Video and movie channels are amongst the most popular with pirate sites like Hindi HD Movies attracting well over two million followers.

From newly released movies and popular live sporting events to lesser-known, critically acclaimed documentaries with subtitles, pirates have circulated, exchanged, and sold illegal copies and video clips on Telegram. The scale of this for-profit piracy is siphoning off billions of dollars that rightfully belong to content and streaming providers and rights holders. Analyst firm Nera Consulting places the global TV industry’s revenue losses from digital piracy at between $39.3 to $95.4 billion per year while a recent global study conducted by Ampere Analysis for Synamedia found that sports streaming piracy alone is worth over $28 billion.

Synamedia has been fighting TV and video piracy for decades, providing services and technology to protect $70 billion in operator revenue every year. By adopting an intelligence-first security model, marrying the very best human intelligence with

cutting-edge cybersecurity and AI technologies, we have disrupted pirate services and brought many criminals to the attention of law enforcement officials.

Gaming the system

Tackling Telegram streaming pirates is a 24x7 battle, requiring continuous monitoring and intelligence gathering not just within Telegram but across all social media platforms to profile rogue players and detect connections and cross-platform relationships. Armed with these insights, Synamedia employs AI-based content recognition crawlers to infiltrate Telegram channels, tracking and identifying specific pirate streams by combining the metadata of a target video - and/or live feeds via platform APIs - with advanced deep machine learning models.

Here, we can share some of our observations about how streaming pirates exploit Telegram:

Prized Piracy Booty:

Hotly anticipated Bollywood blockbusters, newly-released content, and live events – particularly sports fixtures stolen from legitimate streaming sites - are the main attractions. One live sports event can spawn several hundreds of pirated channels with links to watch the illegal streams. But older VOD content is still valuable, as we witnessed during lockdowns when live events were on hold.

Masters of Disguise:

With no embedded player inside the platform, pirates use Telegram channels and groups to distribute text and M3U links to consumers and to upload videos for free to Telegram’s hosted cloud services. To maximise appeal, pirates even include subtitles in different languages and use legitimate payment systems like PayPal and Bitcoin. Pirates hide keywords relating to the event they are stealing or use code words to weave a web of intrigue by embedding references to new private pirate channels inside their messages.

Masters of Strategy:

Pirates act fast, in real-time. Minutes ahead of a live sporting fixture, for example, they will proliferate new channels on Telegram with new links to illegitimate content. They have backup channels ready to switch up at a moment’s notice – sometimes pre-warning consumers which channel to use should the first pirated live stream be removed. They even have their own virtual crow’s nest or ‘lookouts’ for monitoring during an event. We saw a case where a streaming pirate changed the name of the video midstream due to a tip-off from others in the chat group.

Jumping Ship:

Pirates will flaunt that a Telegram channel has been disrupted due to copyright and distribute guidance on how to follow a new one. They also encourage consumers to jump ship to other platforms and pirate sites, providing links to the open web or links to other platforms with players.

Stealing the stream:

Not satisfied with stealing streams of live or on-demand content, pirates also offer OTT subscribers’ stolen credentials, pirated APKs, and hacked IPTV emulator channels which give consumers a link to live channels without the need for a set-top box.

Anti-piracy game-changer

Fighting streaming piracy requires solutions that demotivate pirates at every point along the video distribution chain. That’s why Synamedia’s anti-piracy monitoring solutions extend far beyond social media platforms to the outer reaches of the openw web– as well as closed subscription-based IPTV networks.

Building an anti-piracy strategy requires a painstaking, forensic, intelligence-led approach to map out the increasingly intricate and sophisticated pirate ecosystem in multiple layers to cross-reference data, spot piracy behavioural patterns, unravel approaches, and understand trends. And to win against the pirates, the media and entertainment industry needs to collaborate not just with tech providers but also with governments, regulators, and law enforcement bodies. It requires governments across the globe to mandate the use of technologies such as watermarking and introduce tougher legal penalties.

Streaming piracy is an existential threat. In light of the eye-watering amounts of money spent on producing content and purchasing sports rights, providers have a right to be confident that they are covering their costs and bringing in enough revenue to build sustainable business models because revenue leakage due to piracy is simply not viable in the long term.

As well as deterring and disrupting piracy, using a model that offers incentives encouraging viewers of pirate streams to move back to legitimate services is often overlooked but equally important. With an appealing mix of access and payment models, content providers, and operators can turn the tables on the pirates and play the system to their advantage, encouraging consumers to pay for legitimate services instead.

(Avigail Gutman is the vice-president of Intelligence & Security Operations at Synamedia. The views expressed in the column are personal and may not subscribe to them.)

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