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The new cable theft of service
Aug 8, 2013

It used to be so much easier to steal cable TV services.  In the olden days, simply tapping the outdoor plant would enable any cable-ready analog TV to tune into content that was otherwise unavailable, for free!  As cable matured into digital forms of transmission, this ‘loophole’ was effectively cut off through the use of encryption, conditional access, and the (near) complete reclamation of analog services.  Without a DTA and the requisite crypto services, my old cable-ready tube TV is useless.

 

Fast forward a few years, and we’re now to the point where modern all-digital cable access plants have a decision to make.  There is demand for more HD, demand for more data (DOCSIS) services, demand for for VoD.  Many plants have already reclaimed for digital the entire analog spectrum that was once available.  To maintain the status quo of spectrum division of services, the MSO must invest in bandwidth expansion (1-GHz+ plants), fork the access network, or “rob Peter to pay Paul” in order to change the allocation of bandwidth to services.  This simply isn’t acceptable to any modern cable operator.

 

Many cable operators have come to the (correct) conclusion that the best to way expand services on existing access plants is through the statistical multiplexing abilities of packet-based networks. DOCSIS and IP are going to play a much more significant role in the delivery of video products to consumer’s homes, to all devices.  This video will be delivered over http and use open standard protocols – a great improvement in software innovation velocity and supportability.  But in doing so, are we going back to the future, making it easy to once again steal cable video services?

 

The next generation of cable TV theft won’t be tapping the plant, but hacking the server.  And this sort of theft will take much more sophisticated tooling and skillset to prevent and detect – simply driving a truck looking for illegal taps isn’t going to cut it.   Imagine a data center producing hundreds of gigabytes per second of IP/HTTP video to an MSO subscriber base.  What percent of that traffic is legitimately being consumed by paying customers?  Hopefully 100%, but it will be imperative to ensure this is the case, to not do so is simply leaking money off the top and bottom lines of the company.

 

DRM and related tools are a good first security method, but as we’ve learned from DVD’s, it’s only a matter of time before such tools are cracked.   What’s needed are sophisticated, proactive, analytical security tools which can thwart network attacks on MSO infrastructure, even before they manifest themselves into compromised systems and actual theft.    These tools should be able to exchange data about potential threats within the MSO community.  Think of it like surrounding the access plant with electrified razor wire in the old analog days – stop the attacker before they’re able to do anything nefarious.   These sorts of innovative security tools exist today and are being deployed around the world.

 

My analog tube TV still works great for Pong, but that’s about it.  We can relegate theft of http video to the same dusty corner of the basement.

 

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