Police Use Smart Tools to Battle Piracy in Africa

Three years ago, a piracy ring in Botswana was disrupted in a dramatic raid that saw members of the country’s Police Serious Crime Squad — accompanied by reps from South Africa’s MultiChoice Africa — swoop in to recover 1,800 Magicbox decoders, computers, MultiChoice smartcards, a smartcard reader and piles of cash.

While anti-piracy operations on the continent aren’t always so dramatic, such efforts underscore the shifting landscape for African content creators, distributors and broadcasters trying to combat piracy in the digital age.

“Piracy here on this continent has been mostly on the DVD and key sharing side, because the infrastructure is still very limited,” said Geir Bjorndal of security specialists Verimatrix. But the growing reach of pay-TV platforms in Africa, he added, has created a space for pirates as new operators struggle to secure their transmissions.

In order to combat control word sharing and other methods of hacking encrypted data, Bjorndal said free-to-air and pay-TV operators need to build advanced security measures into their set-top boxes before they go to market. Verimatrix worked with East African media conglomerate Wananchi when it launched its Zuku pay-TV platform in 2010, using cardless set-top boxes, which Bjorndal described as “distribution for the future.”

Still, while high-end security solutions help broadcasters to shore up weaknesses in the transmission chain, piracy “finds new ways,” Bjorndal said. As broadband access becomes more and more accessible for an estimated 1 billion African consumers, facilitating the move to IPTV, faster Internet speeds at lower prices have opened a Pandora’s Box for pirates.

“Content redistribution is the new piracy,” Bjorndal said. “More and more we’ll see that redistribution will be the problem, not the piracy as we knew it in the last 10 years.”

Such concerns were echoed last year by South Africa’s M-Net, which is owned by MultiChoice, when it unveiled Express From the U.S., a service that shows new episodes of hit series within 24 hours of their American broadcasts, hoping to stay ahead of the pirates by quickly satisfying audience demand.

Industry players across the creation, distribution and transmission chain will have to work together to find such solutions in the digital age, whether it’s narrowing the window for TV programming or watermarking content in order to trace leakage.

Ultimately, they will have to remain nimble to adapt to a media landscape that’s constantly evolving.

“By the end of the day, it’s all going to be IPTV,” Bjorndal said. “But the end of the day is still 15 or 20 years from now.”

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