Satellite pirates sacked by DirecTV

In what may go down as the best defensive play of Super Bowl XXXV, the nation's leading satellite television provider threw for a big loss dish owners who've been stealing service.

DirecTV broadcast an electronic signal to the millions of satellite dishes throughout North America last Sunday to detect and disable unauthorized access cards used to steal service.

"It says to the hacked card, `Go kill yourself,"' said Larry Rissler, DirecTV's vice president of the office of signal integrity.

DirecTV said this electronic countermeasure, dubbed by satellite signal pirates as "Black Sunday" for its ruthlessness, was timed for maximum effect. It coincides with the biggest televised event of the year, the Super Bowl. Even though the National Football League championship is broadcast on network television, some viewers must rely on cable or satellite because of poor reception.

No legitimate satellite viewers lost their service, but an estimated 200,000 dish owners with pirated access cards got zapped. DirecTV has about 9.5 million U.S. subscribers.

The competing satellite TV service, EchoStar Dish Network, is believed to have done the same thing the Tuesday before the game, knocking out pirates on its system. Marc Lumpkin, spokesman for parent company EchoStar Communications Corp., said the company would not comment on security issues. Dish Network has more than 4.5 million subscribers nationwide.

DirecTV's electronic bullet was brutally effective.

"It took out everything," said a 28-year-old Canadian who operates a TV pirate site called "It damaged the card so it's not usable at all," said the man using the Internet name Risestar. "There's no recourse."

The electronic blow is the latest in a series of efforts, both technological and civil, DirecTV has used to stamp out theft of service.

DirecTV began its pursuit of pirates about six years ago, when hackers figured out how to get satellite programming for free. The key is not in the dish that collects the signal or in the receiver that tunes it, but rather in the access card that DirecTV activates whenever a user subscribes to the service.

Each receiver is equipped with an access card--a credit card-size smart card embedded with a microchip. Each chip has a unique code that identifies the subscriber and tells the receiver for which channels he or she has paid.

The piracy involves rewriting code on the cards, usually by experienced software programmers, to receive all available channels on the service, including pay-per-view and premium movie channels, as well as sporting events that might normally be blacked out.

The hacked cards are sold openly over the Internet and through conventional means, such as newspaper classified ads and free-circulation ad circulars.

The part of the cards damaged in the counterattack is used to start up the satellite receiver. Just as a computer boots up each time it's turned on, so does the card in the satellite receiver. The attack disrupted the start program, Risestar said.

"They sent down a signal that was able to determine if the card that was being used in a machine had been modified," he said. "If it was modified at all, it corrupted a key portion of the card that made it impossible to boot up."

The company's electronic bullets occur frequently, Risestar said, and usually the damage is minimal, targeted mostly to other parts of the cards.

"This one was harsh, severely damaging," he said. "They don't do this one very often."

DirecTV has pursued pirates through the courts, including one case in British Columbia that resulted in a $30 million award.

It also worked with the FBI in Los Angeles to crack an alleged piracy ring. That case resulted in the indictment last August of 15 people accused of selling access cards that had been reprogrammed to deliver all of DirecTV's 225 channels and all its pay-per-view events for free. The pirates reportedly sold the hacked cards over the Internet for prices ranging from $200 to $800.

DirecTV has won $55 million in judgments since it began prosecuting pirates in 1996.

"It's a huge problem," said DirecTV's Rissler, a retired FBI agent. "Quite frankly, the disappointing part of it is the willingness of people to use these things."

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