Outsmarting the digital TV pirates

With smart card technology vulnerable to fraud, electronics firms and academia are teaming up to find a solution.

A UK university is set to work alongside major electronics companies to develop a new smart card technology that could help protect digital TV and other media from pirates.

The launch of the EU-backed Full Speed project – which includes the University of Surrey, Philips and Schlumberger – comes as the digital TV industry grapples with the implications of legal action currently under way in the US.

Allegations denied

Pay-TV provider Canal Plus is alleging that NDS, a subsidiary of rival television giant News Corporation, helped disseminate codes that allowed hackers to create false smart cards. NDS has denied the allegations.

Whatever the outcome of the dispute, Dr Peter Sweeney of Surrey University’s Centre for Communications Systems Research said current smart card technology is fundamentally inadequate for protecting digital TV data from determined pirates.ITV Digital, the UK digital TV service, has been plagued by bogus smart cards, with an estimated 100,000 in circulation at one stage.

Sweeney said the Surrey team and the other partners in the European Union project would look for a new generation of smart cards capable of dealing with the special demands presented by advanced multimedia.

He said the solution lies in creating a smart card system with sufficient computing power to cope with the calculations needed to create a unique ‘key’ for each card user that cannot be copied or passed on to anyone else.

‘The current generation of smart cards is not up to these computations,’ he said.The Full Speed project will look to create a new system based on 32-bit computer processing and the Java operating system to support multimedia applications needing high cryptographic calculation capacities.

Sweeney said the issues facing broadcasters were similar to those attempting to combat piracy in other areas, but complicated by the commercial demands of operating a pay-TV service.

Constantly changing

‘The point about pay digital TV is that it is constantly changing, with people dropping in and out and adding new packages. You don’t want to have to change your keys every time.’

The fact that services such as ITV Digital operate over the airwaves, rather than via a fixed link to a set-top box, as in the case of cable TV, also increases the technical challenges.

The Surrey University team is also investigating ways to counter the huge problem of piracy of digital audio and video material, including ‘watermarking’ systems that make copying films impossible.