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Steven Hawley, MD of Piracy Monitor, talks piracy and brand safety
October 14, 2021
On the 19th and 20th October the Video Security Summit takes to the stage and will provide a platform for experts globally to challenge the issues affecting the industry across brand safety and piracy. In this Q and A, The Digital Voice meets the man behind this key event, Steven Hawley, MD of Piracy Monitor, to understand what the event will deliver and what questions it will answer.
Q: What are the key types of piracy today – and what is the cost of these?
First, it’s important that we recognise that piracy takes many forms, and that it isn’t just this amorphous ‘thing’. Piracy can be segmented into the theft of content, services, apps and devices, delivery infrastructure, advertising, and ‘theft of you,’ through the fraudulent use of consumer data.
Q: Is criminal activity in the form of online piracy growing – if so, why?
First of all, piracy is criminal activity by definition: it’s theft and it’s copyright infringement. And in the broadest sense, yes, piracy is growing worldwide. The cost of servers, software and equipment needed to establish a pirate distribution operation continues to go down, and piracy business models continue to evolve. Content wholesalers offer program streams and video assets to resellers that link to the assets and streams via the cloud without ever touching the content, which reduces their criminal exposure.
Another example is malware. After setting up operations, a ready community of fraudulent app developers is available to create apps that can deposit ransomware code onto the consumer’s device. When the consumer pays to unlock their device, the proceeds are split between the pirate and the app developer.
Q: What are the pros and cons of AI versus human content moderation policies?
On the one hand, artificial intelligence and machine learning are ways to automate the process of discovering fraud, which can reduce overall risks and costs. A pay TV provider, for example, can model ‘the typical subscriber’ as having a certain range and number of devices, household members, locations and viewing habits so that they can then detect when usage exceeds modeled parameters.
On the other hand, as criminal techniques change and evolve and business models and practices change, it’s important to maintain a human touch, which some may simply dismiss as an expense. At an operational level, there needs to be staff that are knowledgeable in piracy and anti-piracy technologies and sensitive to the ways that the technologies are implemented. For example, an automated process can be in place to detect when the same device requests the same movie 20 times in a five minute period, and be set to deactivate the user account.
An algorithm may not be programmed to monitor for several days to see whether that anomalous behavior continues. For example, it might have been a watch party among friends. And there might be multiple mitigation options. When the video provider presents a ‘friends and family’ offer instead of shutting down the account, the family member might become a new customer. In the end, it often takes human evaluation to decide which course to take, and to adjust the algorithm manually.
There also needs to be human-based legal expertise to advise on whether an anti-piracy business requirement can even be implemented using existing technology and practices, because if it can’t, the parties may be in breach the moment an agreement is signed.
Q: How are you going about helping to eliminate fraudulent traffic, facilitate the sharing of threat intelligence, and promoting brand safety?
At Piracy Monitor, we provide an educational resource where interested parties can find information from authoritative sources. We are excited to establish our new relationship with TAG. And in the bigger-picture, Piracy Monitor is happy to partner with industry organizations, agencies and businesses that have experience, knowledge, research and best-practices to share with the community.
Q: What steps can brands take to ensure that advertising partners have taken the necessary steps to reduce the risk of unsafe ad placements?
A common-sense approach would be to ask for clearly identified and clearly articulated anti-fraud policies, and then compare those policies with your own requirements and objectives. Then the parties can know whether any discrepancies can be resolved through negotiation, clarification or policy change; or whether there’s too much distance between them to make a partnership viable.
Q: What are some key brand safety challenges today?
Consumer fraud directly threatens brand safety. Pirates buy consumer financial databases for pennies on the dollar, and then use automation to test account IDs and passwords against media accounts. Using credentials that are found to work, pirates then mount phishing campaigns to trick account holders to provide other personal information or content, or invite them to download app updates that deposit ransomware. All while tricking the consumer into thinking that the app is from a trusted source - like a pay TV provider or a streaming site. If the consumer mentally associates the attack with the fraudulent app and the source that the consumer was tricked into believing it was, that can certainly impact brand reputation.
The good news is that while pirates could be using your ads to distract from malicious intent, advertisers and agencies also hold power to direct their ad spending only to channels that can guarantee safe distribution.
Q: What are the key risks in terms of piracy today for brands and, looking ahead and considering emerging trends, are these changing in any way?
Programmatic advertising uses automation to match advertising with websites and apps that help advertisers reach targeted consumers. A new class of ad tech companies act as intermediaries between legitimate programmatic platforms and pirate sites, placing legitimate ads with fraudulent sites and apps.
In a 2021 report by Digital Citizens Alliance and White Bullet, just five such companies push two thirds of advertising to pirate websites. The situation for ads placed in fraudulent apps is worse: 88% of ads presented to fraudulent apps come through just five aggregators. And interestingly, of those five, two of them - representing more than half of that traffic - are from Google.
On October 19 at the Video Security Summit, TAG GM Nick Stringer and White Bullet CEO Peter Szyszko will describe how pirates use stolen advertising to legitimize their fraudulent apps, websites, and illicit streaming services and devices, and how they detect ad-supported piracy and fight it. Readers of The Drum Open Mic can receive a free ticket to the event by clicking here.