The DirecTV Empire Strikes back

Direct satellite broadcaster DirecTV has gone on the offensive against piracy by unplugging freeloaders and by installing copy protection circuitry in its latest set-top boxes.

Hundreds of thousands of unauthorized DirecTV subscribers have been cut off by the broadcaster in a game of technological warfare. The thriving DBS underground has been thwarted by a devastating move DirecTV made on January 27 that disabled bogus access cards used to activate satellite receivers, giving their owners free access to premium channels. More than 200,000 non-paying DirecTV users—most of them in Canada—were forced to find another way to watch the Super Bowl as a result. The bogus access cards are illegal in the US, but not in Canada, where DirecTV is not a licensed broadcaster. The cards have been permanently disabled by the strike, according to news reports.

Legitimate access cards come with the receivers and are necessary to make them work, but hackers have found ways to reprogram them so that they provide all-channel access, something that would normally cost more than $200 per month. Losses to DirecTV are estimated in the millions, but like most estimates on piracy, are open to question because it's unlikely that freeloaders would have ever agreed to pay for the services they were stealing. DirecTV's attack was so effective that hackers say it will be weeks until workarounds begin to appear. Super Bowl Sunday has been dubbed "Black Sunday" by some sports fans, thanks to the attack by the nation's biggest satellite broadcaster, which claims about 9.5 million subscribers in the United States.

DirecTV is also cooperating with the film industry by installing HDTV copy-protection circuitry in its latest generation of set-top boxes, according to some inside reports in late January. The circuitry enables the shutoff of HD output for any program where the producer has misgivings about its potential for piracy. When the Copy Generation Management System (CGMS) is engaged, the video output from DirecTV boxes will default to standard definition 480i, according to these reports. Intended to prevent high-def copying of copyrighted films and other programming, CGMS capabilities are built in to all HDTV-ready DirecTV boxes made by all major manufacturers, and have been since the introduction of the RCA DTC100 receiver. The output of these boxes will automatically shift from one format to the other at DirecTV's whim. The staff here at SGHT is taking bets on how long it will be until hackers figure out how to defeat CGMS.