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Pirates are not "Robin Hood characters"

by FACT UK

More than one million illegal set-top boxes with add-ons that allow consumers to stream content illegally have been sold in the UK in the last two years, putting the public at significant risk.

A new report entitled Cracking Down on Digital Piracy collates expert insights from the Intellectual Property Office (IPO), FACT, City of London Police, Police Intellectual Property Crime Unit (PIPCU), Police Scotland and Entura International, providing insights into how criminals profit from pirating content.

Criminals behind digital piracy make money from advertising; typically, banner ads or pop-up windows for casinos or dating sites, sometimes exposing children to inappropriate content.

Other money-making scams include subscription fees to access paid-for channels; and charging other criminals to put malware on sites and hijack users' computers. Estimates range from tens of millions to hundreds of millions of pounds going to these criminal groups every year.

Kieron Sharp, Director General at FACT, said: "This report has come at a crucial time in our fight against digital piracy. A quarter of Brits access digital material illegally, and often don't realise the risks associated with that, for them and their families. Pirates are not Robin Hood characters; they are criminals who do it to make money through illicit means. As a result, the risks are high – inappropriate advertising that could be seen by young children, electrical safety associated with counterfeit parts, and financial cybercrime."

With criminal enterprises closely linked to piracy, there are also several concerning trends emerging: 

  • Kodi add-ons: The availability of illegal add-ons to Kodi software has helped organised gangs reach a wider audience, but these add-ons have no parental controls or security standards
  • Social media streaming overtaking web streaming: Streaming is increasingly migrating to social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook, helping the criminals attract more viewers and putting more users at risk of malware or security issues
  • The dark web and bitcoin boom: Criminal gangs are using the dark web – hidden from the mainstream internet – to sell illicit information, such as the illegal software used to modify set-top boxes or the customer data they’ve acquired through malware
  • Social media commerce replacing the pub or car boot sale: The criminals selling illicit streaming devices are moving their business online, advertising on social media platforms and e-commerce sites. This helps them remain anonymous and avoid capture. 

The most recent stats show that 75% of Brits who look at content online abide by the law and don't download or stream it illegally - up from 70% in 2013. However, that still leaves 25% who do access material illegally.

A recent study by the UK Industry Trust - "IPTV Piracy: A study on set-top-box and stick infringement for the industry" (2016) - showed that 43% of set top box users were spending less money on DVD/Blu-Ray discs and 41% less on cinema because they were able to find an unauthorized copy of the film via their set top box.

The latest police figures estimated that there were two million computer misuse offences committed in England and Wales in 2016 - more than burglary, robbery, vehicle-related theft, criminal damage or violent offences.

Not surprisingly, then, the police and other law enforcement authorities are taking cybercrime, including digital piracy, increasingly seriously.

A growing concern and focus for law enforcement and industry relates to the increasing problem of illicit streaming devices - an increasingly popular way to access illegal content.

The new Digital Economy Act which comes into effect on October 1 has extended criminal penalties for online copyright infringement to match those of physical copyright infringement - maximum sentences will increase from two to ten years.

DCI Pete Ratcliffe, Head of PIPCU, said: "While it may be tempting for people to think they are getting a bargain when streaming illegally, it's important to remember that there are organised criminals behind it, often associated with other serious crimes.

Pirating content is not a petty crime; from release groups, to site operators to set-top box wholesalers and distributors, there is an international criminal business model.

Read the full report here.

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