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Piercing the VPN veil: the key to better content protection and targeted personalisation

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Content piracy has always posed problems. Yet while it was an issue in the days of VHS, it’s been compounded by the advent of digital. In 2016, the Intellectual Property Office found that 15 per cent of UK Internet users aged over 12 (almost 6.7 million people) had accessed pirated content in the last three months. The research also found that five per cent of the same target group exclusively consumed material they hadn’t paid for. Since it was a survey where respondents were asked directly, so presumably not all were honest, and if you extrapolated that data out across the year, it’s clear that the real figure is much higher.

What’s interesting is this same survey found overall P2P file sharing, which has been the staple of content piracy for some time, is declining while streaming is on the rise. You could argue that this paints a picture of overall optimism for the broadcast industry. But this doesn’t take into account the many grey routes consumers have available to them when it comes to accessing content they shouldn’t – particularly VPN technology.

 

The current state of content piracy

When it comes to content piracy, VPN technology has become the go-to method for avoiding content restrictions and accessing material that consumers have not paid for, or do not otherwise have rights to watch because of their location. Unsurprisingly, this has since created a headache for rights holders and has become synonymous with content piracy as a result, which has led broadcasters and OTT players to employ a variety of tactics in an attempt to curb its effectiveness.

One particularly powerful approach is improving the overall user experience. When services, such as Netflix, can offer access to a vast library for a low monthly fee, viewers are less inclined to consume pirated content. Many other OTT providers rely on geo-blocking tools, which stop users from accessing content based on their geographical location. This can prove effective for curbing VPN usage, too, and is a step in the right direction to mitigating piracy. But there will always be users who want to circumvent these restrictions and find new ways of doing so.

Currently, in the case of VPNs, many online streaming services automatically cut access to a tunnelled connection by monitoring the IP addresses that access their services and comparing them to a ‘black list’ of known tunnelling hubs. The problem is that if a consumer uses a VPN service that isn’t currently flagged on the black list, they could still evade the geo-blocks the service has in place and watch content they shouldn’t be able to – and this is just one way that VPN users can mask their activity.

However, the game is changing, and fraud prevention tools have evolved to tackle these threats. VPN technology, on the other hand, hasn’t progressed at the same pace. Broadcasters can easily circumvent it, and consumers may not be aware. For example, Netflix allowed access to its content via a VPN for a long time before becoming global as it gave them incredibly useful market statistics for which region to launch into next.

 

Piercing the VPN veil

An IP address is no longer the only way to identify a user or their location, since more effective alternatives are now in play. These alternatives have pierced the veil and this progress has impacted and devalued the VPN as a means of evading content protection. Broadcasters stand to benefit going forward.

Broadcasters are increasingly turning to streaming platform providers that offer end-to-end delivery where each user’s access can be individually controlled. Called unicast, this is a much more effective way of managing the consumer-provider relationship and has effectively negated the value of VPN technology overnight when it comes to content piracy.

This innovative technology allows an operator to track an individual stream over any network and can pinpoint the user’s location down to a specific postcode. By combining device authentication with server-side encryption, and only allowing legitimate traffic to access content through a firewall pinhole, forward-thinking broadcasters are able to add a vital third layer of verification.

If the user’s authentication details don’t stack up with the firewall pinhole that’s been opened for them, the connection is dropped, which ensures the right content is delivered to the right device, safely and securely. These platforms can track and identify each device as it accesses the network, from origin to viewing location, authenticating against the server each step of the way and ensuring the consumer can only see the content they’ve paid for or are otherwise allowed to watch given where they currently are in the world.

The latest approach is device agnostic and can be rolled out across STBs, connected TVs, PCs, tablets, smartphones – or any other device on which a consumer chooses to view content. Should an unauthorised stream arise, or a breach on the network take place, the content being streamed to that individual can be cut without impacting the experience for other users. And having end-to-end visibility into each user’s connection to the service gives broadcasters a much better view into personalisation and data analytics too.

 

Broadcast’s data personalisation model

Unsurprisingly, given the current information-led landscape we operate in, platforms that adopt an approach like this function on the back of advanced data analytics. An end-to-end subscriber connection feed is essential to prevent content piracy, but it’s also giving broadcasters a valuable data stream to work with when it comes to personalising content recommendations and driving new revenues.

By gathering both historic and real-time user data, including when, where, and what content was watched, on which device, and for how long, broadcasters can gain much deeper insights into individual consumers. And since each connection is individually controlled, an approach such as this would allow them to inject tailored ads into the stream for much more targeted advertising, making this the next level of content protection and personalisation.

Ultimately, although content piracy may have had a long history, with the right industry action its future could well be cut short.


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