x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

'Pirate' TV decoders are seized

Customers are the innocent victims of software theft as they buy equipment that can be used to decrypt pay channels and view pornography.

Sandra Oh and Patrick Dempsey in <i>Grey's Anatomy</i>, one of Showtime's programmes.
Sandra Oh and Patrick Dempsey in Grey's Anatomy, one of Showtime's programmes.

DUBAI // Thousands of satellite TV decoder boxes that could be used to illegally watch pay channels and pornography have been seized in a joint raid by the Ministry of Economy and Dubai Police. Two people were arrested during raids on two warehouses being used to store 4,000 boxes, believed to have been smuggled to the UAE from Korea. The boxes look the same as legal equipment but contain software that allows them to decode broadcasts without a subscription.

"Normally the manufacturers pay a software company, in this case Irdeto Access, to provide the software key to decrypt the channels. What happened is that pirates have cloned that software, allowing the hardware to decode the scrambled channels," said G Raja, an internet security analyst for the Arabian Anti-piracy Alliance. The group represents the interests of Hollywood film studios, subscription TV channels and other media companies.

"At some point in the supply chain, someone at a legitimate manufacturer of microchips or other hardware has made the decision to buy this illegally hacked software." However, key codes are changed regularly, rendering the illegal boxes obsolete. The boxes were sold to unsuspecting members of the public through small electrical shops in Dubai. Their illegal status came to light when some customers called subscription TV channels to complain that their services were being cut off.

Up to that point, however, pornographic channels from Europe would have been accessible using the boxes. "The UAE understands the importance of combating piracy and protecting investors; it is the role model for the region. Piracy will always be here, but we are working with the Government to try and minimise it to create a healthy environment for investors," Mr Raja said. Mohammed al Shihhi, undersecretary at the Ministry of Economy, said software piracy was a considerable threat both to society and the economy.

"The ministry intends to maintain Dubai's status as a model for the national and regional anti-piracy movement, and in the process enhance the UAE's reputation as a regional IT business and investment hub. Through partnerships with private interests such as the AAA, we will eventually win the war against intellectual property rights violators." Wisam Edghaim, the operations director for Showtime Arabia, said it was impossible to put a figure on the value of business lost to pay TV companies through piracy, but claimed it could cause significant problems for customers.

"A lot of customers are unaware that, because the software keys change frequently, the services they get through this type of box will eventually be disconnected and they then have to go back to the pirates to have the box re-programmed. The customer is the ultimate loser. By continually having to go back to the shop they can end up paying more than they would for a subscription." Showtime spends millions of dirhams acquiring the rights to films and TV programmes including Grey's Anatomy, Ugly Betty and The Simpsons.

Mr Edghaim also warned that people buying pirated software were helping to fund organised crime. "It is all tied in money laundering and other organised criminal activity, and it harms the economy because, if the market is open for piracy, it makes companies more wary about investing in the country." He said the UAE authorities were leading the regional fight against piracy, but called for tougher sentences for those involved.

"There have been a lot of fines handed out, between Dh10,000 and Dh50,000 (US$2,700 to $13,600) depending on the crime, and there have been one or two people jailed, but we would like to see more people going to prison." gmcclenaghan@thenational.ae