Being bound to geographical licensing agreements, many video entertainment services can only serve certain titles in specified regions.
However, some people bypass these content and access restrictions by using VPNs or other circumvention tools that change their geographical location.
This makes it easy for people all around the world to pay for access to the U.S. version of Netflix, for example. That is, if their VPN is not blocked.
Rightsholders are not happy with these deviant subscribers as it hurts the value of licensing agreements. So-called “VPN-pirates” are a thorn in their side and they demand strict countermeasures from Netflix and other providers to tackle them.
In recent years these countermeasures have become more effective. As a result, companies including the BBC, Hulu and Netflix block a wide range of IP-addresses operated by commercial VPN providers. The VPN pirates aren’t sitting still either. They often discuss which servers are still working, and some VPN providers even advertise their geo-unlocking capabilities.
The result is a typical cat-and-mouse game where both sides are trying to get an advantage over the other. On the blocking side, the Vancouver-based company GeoGuard is making waves. To be able to pinpoint VPN pirates even better, they have teamed up with Skyhook to add Wi-Fi access point data to its detection tool.
This means that if someone from the UK tries to watch something that’s only available in America, through an American VPN server, the Wi-Fi location data may help to expose this “pirate.”
GeoGuard primarily sees its solution as the ideal tool for new services such as Sean Parker’s Screening Room, which aims to stream the latest Hollywood blockbusters to people’s homes as soon as they premiere at the box office.
If GeoGuard knows the home address, which most services have in their customer records, they can check whether the stream is actually being delivered there.
“What we and Skyhook do is then carry out a check before the movie can be shown via whatever device is selected (Smart TV, PC, etc.) that that device is within about a 50-meter radius of the stated home/billing address,” the company told TF.
“Once this is established, the provider of the stream can be reassured that the movie will only be shown where it is meant to be,” GeoGuard added.
Skyhook claims to have a database of over 800 million Wi-Fi access points and cellular towers, covering large parts of the world. Using this data as an extra check helps to block more users. David Bairstow, VP of product at Skyhook, is convinced of this.
“This new solution with GeoGuard, the first of its kind, ensures that a home cinema viewer is actually at a viewer’s home – and not spoofing a location in order to broadcast the movie in a public place or to illegally distribute proprietary content,” he says.
While copyright holders are happy with the added security, privacy advocates are more concerned. First people already had to turn off their VPNs to watch something, and now their physical location is being checked as well.
Geoguard doesn’t believe there’s much of a privacy issue though. They rely on data that’s already available and say that people can still turn on their VPN for extra security, just not while watching Netflix and similar services.
“So from our perspective, if somebody wants to watch Netflix etc., then they know that they have to have their location checked, and also they have to turn off their VPN and it doesn’t seem a big issue from a privacy perspective,” the company concludes.