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Piercing the VPN veil: Where content protection meets personalisation

(Image credit: Image Credit: Flickr / Mike MacKenzie)

Content piracy poses all sorts of problems. On the surface, the most immediate issue is the loss of revenue from someone accessing and sharing something they shouldn’t. Deeper down, though, there’s a risk that video rights granted to an OTT provider, broadcaster, or any other player involved in this ongoing game of cat and mouse, could be revoked altogether if they’re not seen as doing enough to prevent it.

FACT’s anti-piracy adverts from the early noughties may have targeted a different distribution method, but the message still rings true in the age of subscription services and video on demand. In fact, the impact of pirates illegitimately gaining access to live broadcasts or content libraries available via streaming stands to disrupt the bottom line in a way that’s more pervasive than before. It’s no surprise, then, that VPN usage continues to be a thorn in the side of those operating in this space – particularly as consumers and the tools they use become more adept at evading the existing IT systems designed to tackle the issue at hand.

Identifying the problem

At the most basic level, streaming services operate geo-location blocks for the content they offer. This is important, as content rights are often limited to certain regions – i.e. a film that’s available on the US version of Netflix isn’t also open to stream for those in the UK. With this in mind, the value VPN technology holds in helping to avoid these restrictions is clear. Consumers have been using this as a means to watch content they haven’t paid for, or do not otherwise have the right to view because of their location, for years.

Geo-location blocking can be effective in curbing VPN usage and the IP spoofing it enables, and is a step in the right direction for tackling video streaming piracy. But it’s not the be all and end all. There will always be those that continue to circumvent these restrictions and find new ways of doing so. And some of these routes of evasion are easier to access than you may think.

Video streaming piracy in 2018

Currently, when a VPN is detected, many online streaming services will automatically cut access to the tunnelled connection. This is possible because they monitor the IP addresses that use the service in near real-time, comparing those to a list of known tunnelling hubs. However, much in the same way that content piracy poses issues above and below the surface, this approach doesn’t tell the full story.

A particularly notable problem that can occur with this method of dealing with illegitimate access is the speed at which new tunnels pop up. If a consumer is using a VPN provider that isn’t currently flagged on the black list, they can very easily evade the geo blocks in place and watch content they shouldn’t be able to without issue. It’s not just the threat of new VPN services either; two-hop tunnelling can also pose a challenge for blacklist prevention with long-established VPN providers. False positives can be difficult to manage too.

Evidently something more is needed to tackle this threat, which depends on looking beyond the IP address as a means of identification. Granted, a viewer’s IP is a quick and easy way to establish where they’re likely located, but VPN usage is never going to disappear. Using an IP address alone to try and fix this is akin to playing whack-a-mole, which puts content providers on the back foot – unless they can drill right down to the device that consumers are watching content on.

Tackling this with new technology

Fortunately, new mitigation techniques have been developed that allow a broadcaster to pierce the VPN veil altogether. It’s the concept of using geofencing as a baseline to protect content rights, then, most importantly, going a step further – using advanced security techniques to block content from unauthorised outside access.

For example, by implementing a unicast approach to streaming, OTT TV providers can ensure end-to-end content delivery. The benefit is that this gives them full visibility and control over how an individual user is able to access the service, made possible by placing a token on the viewer’s device. This allows content providers to track and identify who’s watching by pinpointing their location through an authentication mechanism that goes beyond the IP address. It’s can establish where the viewer is actually located – even if they’re using a VPN – then open a tailor-made pinhole in the network firewall to let their specific device access the content in question.

This technique is authenticated against the server each step of the way, ensuring the viewer can only see the content they’ve paid for or are otherwise entitled to watch based on where they currently are. And with end-to-end control over each content stream, it’s also possible to cut access to individual sessions at the device level without affecting the experience for everyone else.

Where content protection meets personalisation

Yet there’s more to this than meets the eye. Curbing the threat of VPN usage is important. So is putting a system in place that can tackle future piracy concerns as they arise. However, it’s only one piece of the puzzle for what more advanced piracy prevention tools can do. Since the end-to-end content delivery benefit of this technology has its roots firmly set in data, it also opens up a raft of opportunities for more targeted content recommendations and personalisation as a result.

Having access to geo-location and user authentication information that goes beyond the IP address has a range of benefits in this regard. It’s accurate data about where the user is accessing the network from, what they’re doing, for how long, and on which device. Combined with the viewer’s previous behaviour, it’s also a granular indication of how they’re engaging with different types of content on offer and what’s holding their attention.

By gathering both historic and real-time user data in this way, OTT TV providers can gain deeper insights into the individual habits of consumers while more effectively protecting the interests of the rights holders they’re streaming content from. Crucially, since each connection is individually controlled, an approach such as this would then allow them to inject tailored ads into the stream for targeted advertising.

Addressing piracy and churn together

Since the very early days of the internet, the battle lines have been drawn between media companies looking for new ways to protect their copyright and consumers trying to get what they want without paying. Nothing is fundamentally different in the age of video streaming, except to say that the technology used for tackling this problem has now evolved in favour of rights holders. In turn, this evolution has ushered in new ways to prevent customer churn and drive the bottom line – demonstrating how content protection and personalisation now go hand in hand.

Nick Fitzgerald, CEO, TV2U
Image Credit: Flickr / Mike MacKenzie

Nick Fitzgerald is CEO at TV2U, a Managed OTT TV platform which uses advanced data analytics to help its customers monetise their services with highly targeted viewer-level advertising and personalisation.