by Lori Flekser, Executive Director, Creative Content Australia — 11/02/2020
February 11 is Safer Internet Day – a day that unites millions around the world to draw attention to the many online safety concerns and to motivate positive change. Simultaneously, the Australian Government is reviewing the online safety framework, which includes laws that govern online safety in Australia.
The Government should be applauded for addressing the rapidly evolving online environment that exposes Australians, young and old, to innumerable harms. And yet, even though research confirms that copyright-infringing content sites are a major risk to cyber safety, these dangers have not been raised in any discussion papers.
The growth of the Internet has given counterfeiters unique opportunities to sell and distribute pirated digital content.For the online content scheme to adequately limit access to inappropriate material and to harmful links, pirate-content sites must be provided the same consideration as other prohibited or potentially prohibited content.
Unsurprisingly, illegal content sites have long been associated with malware and cybercrime, with numerous international and Australian research studies verifying these links. The piracy ecosystem is built on making money from stealing and selling illegal movies, TV shows, sporting events, games, and music. Often uninformed of the risks, users are baited into trying something they think is free or cheap but comes with a hidden cost: malware.
No longer kids in a basement swapping files, piracy is a multi-million dollar enterprise, generating significant profits, with not one cent going back to the original creators or owners of the work.
“Movies are digital bait. Pirate sites have always stolen from content creators by making shows available for free, but now they’re also stealing from people who download these shows”. Tom Galvin, Digital Citizens Alliance.
Ominously, piracy is increasingly linked with sophisticated organised crime groups that are also involved in other criminal activities, including, in a limited number of cases, terrorism.[i]
In 2013, Professor Paul A. Watters[ii] identified that only 1% of advertisements on pirate sites were “Mainstream” ads – placed by legitimate businesses operating within the formal economy.
The remaining 99% were “High Risk” ads to consumers including pornography, gambling, malware and scams (such as premium rate SMS, fake jobs, fake prizes and investments).
Research demonstrates how pirate site operators actively partner with global digital criminals to steal money from consumers who visited their sites. Malware on infringing sites can also be delivered passively – meaning that visitors to the site can be infected without the user
In 2013, Creative Content Australia’s annual research study[iii] revealed that 71% of Australian teens recognised downloading/streaming pirated screen content put them at risk of virus’, spyware or other malware and 61% of active teen pirates said their main concern going online was that their “computer can get infected with viruses and malware”.
In order to quantify the risk of piracy, researchers from Carnegie Mellon University[iv] observed the online activities of 253 people for a year. They found strong evidence that vising infringing sites is more likely to lead to malware on users’ machines. In fact, every doubling of the amount of time that the users spent on various illegal content sites resulted in a 20 per cent increase in malware count on their computers.
Interestingly, users who infringe are not any more web savvy or even careful when they visit infringing sites and not more likely to install anti-virus software. If anything, infringing users take more risks.
Malware developments mean many attacks are often undetectable to the general population: cybercriminals have developed lighter-touch techniques to accessing data and information. Trojans in particular have seen a resurgence since 2018. These smarter, cleaner executions of data theft mean many consumers don’t even know they’ve been a target, or had their computer compromised.
Several international studies and surveys, undertaken between 2014 and 2019, have confirmed the links between pirate sites and cyber-risks.
2014: The ‘Bogus Features’ Lurking Behind Pirate Film and TV Sites[v]
Incopro analysed thirty of the most frequently used infringing film/TV sites in the UK (based on Alexa Rankings) and found that 97% contained malware or credit card scams. Three in four visitors to the sites experienced problems with their device after visiting the sites.
2015: Digital Bait: How Content Theft Site and Malware are Exploited by Cybercriminals to Hack into Internet Users’ Computers and Personal Data [vi]
Comparing a sample of approximately 800 infringing sites to a control group of 250 similarly situated non-infringing sites, the study found that:
2018: Identification and analysis of malware on selected suspected copyright- infringing websites[vii]
Installation of free programs to access copyright-infringing platforms is associated with malware and PUPs (potentially unwanted programs). These applications compromise users’ personal details and computer configuration. Through social engineering tricks, various kinds of private data – such as payment card details, personally identifiable information and social media account credentials – are disclosed.
2019: Fishing in the Piracy Stream: How the Dark Web of Entertainment is Exposing Consumers to Harm [viii]
A Digital Citizens Alliance investigation observed malware on piracy apps stealing usernames and passwords, probing user networks and surreptitiously uploading data without consent. The 12 million active users of these illicit devices in North American homes now present a tempting target because users themselves help hackers bypass network security and offer a new avenue to exploit consumers.
2019: Intellectual Property Crime Assessment 2019 [ix]
Commissioned by the European Union Intellectual Property Office, this recent study concludes that one in four persons who stream illegally through a box or stick are affected by a virus or malware. This study also demonstrated the link between pirate site operators and international crime groups involved in a range of criminal activity: pornography, sex-trafficking, drugs, weapons and even terrorism.
“Cryptojacking” is a more recent method used by pirate sites to increase revenue. Pirate sites use visitors’ processing power to mine crypto. Ironically, content thieves are outraged when their computing power is harnessed for mining XMR.
As technology advances for detecting pirate sites and removing infringing links, so do the abilities of organised criminals to circumvent these measures and to find increasingly ingenious means of exploiting consumers and exposing them to significant cyber-risks via online content sites.
[i] Commissioned/Published by: European Union Intellctual Property Office, 2019
[ii] University of Ballarat Research 2013 “A Systematic Approach to Measuring Advertising Transparency Online”
Prof. Paul A Watters
[iv] Rahul Telan, Carnegie Melon University. July 2018 “Does Online Piracy make Computers Insecure? Evidence from Panel Data” https://weis2018.econinfosec.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/5/2018/06/WEIS_2018_paper_57.pdf
[v] Commissioned/Published by: The Industry Trust, April 2014 http://www.industrytrust.co.uk/press-releases/the-bogus-features-lurking-behind-pirate-film-and-tv-sites/
[vi] Commissioned/Published by: The Digital Citizens Alliance (DCA) & RiskIQ, December 2015, http://www.digitalcitizensalliance.org/cac/alliance/resources.aspx
[vii] Commissioned/Published by:European Union Intellectual Property Office, September 2018
[viii] Commissioned/Published by: Digital Citizens Alliance, April 2019
[ix] Commissioned/Published by: European Union Intellctual Property Office, 2019