How Premier League’s IPTV Piracy Blocking Was Undermined

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Pirate IPTV subscribers in the UK face a continual threat of their streams going down during a crucial Premier League game or a big boxing event. VPNs can mitigate these outages but behind the scenes IPTV providers also work hard to prevent streams being blocked. Until now, these efforts have never been discussed in public but today we can reveal how Flawless IPTV was able to undermine the Premier League's blocking program and remain online.

footballIn the wake of the 30+ year prison sentences handed down to the people behind Flawless IPTV, we’ve been exploring various aspects of the service’s operations and the extraordinary effort expended by the Premier League to bring Flawless down.

While no single facet of Flawless’ operations can explain why such punitive sentences were considered appropriate, the emphasis on the service’s efforts to undermine the Premier League’s ISP blocking program played no small part.

One of the key aims of the blocking program is to prevent football fans in the UK from watching games played in the UK at 3:00pm on Saturday. This ‘blackout’ only affects viewers in the UK; the plan at Flawless was to enable UK football fans to enjoy these games by offering 3:00pm games played in the UK yet only available legally in other countries.

ISP Blocking Program

By offering access to 3:00pm kick-off games, Flawless had a product that wasn’t available to buy in the UK. Fans loved the service but in the background, the Premier League was pulling out all the stops to prevent fans from accessing it.

Birmingham-based anti-piracy company Friend MTS was tasked with monitoring the internet for pirated Premier League streams. However, just like anyone else, the company needed to access the services offering those streams so that server locations could be identified and sent to ISPs Sky, Virgin, BT, TalkTalk, EE, and Plusnet for subsequent blocking.

Using covertly purchased Flawless subscriptions supported by watermarking technology, in 2017 Friend MTS was able to identify specific Sky viewing cards used by Flawless and trace those cards directly to Flawless kingpin Mark Gould. Sky responded by canceling the cards, but the cat-and-mouse game would continue.

A Mole Inside Friend MTS

Our 2019 article provided significant detail on the blocking program, including that information was being leaked from inside an anti-piracy company. We knew that company was Friend MTS, but only more recently did it become clear why the company rejected our requests for comment.

In April 2018, a person who identified themselves as ‘Bill’ opened a support ticket at Flawless. Claiming to work at Friend MTS, ‘Bill’ said that in return for payment via bitcoin, he would provide information from inside the company that would allow Flawless to identify the usernames and passwords of accounts used to obtain information on their service.

It later emerged that ‘Bill’ was Zak Smith, a Friend MTS employee who went on to supply Flawless with crucial information on the blocking system and other sensitive material from inside the company. Information handed over included a list of covert subscriptions and the payment methods used by the anti-piracy company to acquire them – PayPal accounts and scans/photographs of credit/debit cards, among others.

Blocking the Blockers

Using information already in Flawless’ possession, enhanced by the information detailed above, the IPTV provider was able to turn the tables by blocking Friend MTS IP addresses from the Flawless service. Not that the anti-piracy company was initially aware of that.

Through the development and use of a custom script, when the anti-piracy company attempted to access the Flawless service, to obtain IP addresses to be forwarded to ISPs for subsequent blocking, Flawless diverted those requests to servers operated by rival pirate IPTV services.

That meant that any IP address and related server/hosting information obtained during the sweep was actually related to services other than Flawless. When IP addresses were forwarded to the ISPs for blocking, rival IPTV providers were blocked, not Flawless itself.

The Beginning of the End

When arrests of those behind Flawless began in May 2018, information obtained from seized devices revealed the existence of ‘Bill’ and the information he’d supplied to Flawless. Knowing the information had come from inside Friend MTS, the company launched an investigation.

Comparisons were made between the times that data was leaked to Flawless and the company’s security systems which logged people in and out of the building, recording times and dates. With suspicion mounting that Bill was Zak Smith, attention turned to photographs ‘Bill’ had sent to Flawless.

In addition to confidential information, these photographs accidentally captured details of equipment and the office itself. ‘Bill’ was arrested under his real name on August 7, 2018, and pleaded guilty in February 2020. He was not sentenced with the others late last month, with reports indicating that a warrant had been issued for his arrest.


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