Digital Sales Alarm Some Experts


Cable's theft-prevention specialists are glad to see that no one is advertising "cooked" digital boxes on the Internet, but they're alarmed that consumers may have the same "it's not a crime" attitude about selling digital hardware as they do about analog piracy.

Customers don't appreciate the computing power and platform specificity of digital converters, executives added, suggesting that perhaps it's time to educate the public about the differences between an analog and a digital box. If consumers appreciated those distinctions, there would be no buyers for stolen hardware, they said.

"I'm definitely concerned about the number of unreturned digital set-tops throughout the industry," said AT&T Broadband Western group director of security Mike Bates. Those set-tops show up at flea markets and on the Internet.

"I think buyers think they're open," or authorized for all downstream signals, Bates said.

People will buy the boxes for $25 on the off chance that they live in a system with a compatible platform, he said.

Operatives agreed that the boxes that have shown up on auction sites came from individual subscribers, as there have been no reported wholesale box thefts. Since individual sellers conduct the auctions, it is more likely that they'll respond to a corporate inquiry.

"We do e-mail the sellers. Technically, they're selling stolen property and we ask them to do the right thing," said AT&T Sacramento security director Bill Bowyer. But security officials can't spend all their time monitoring the Internet or local want ads.

Piracy investigators have found a few Web sites that offer doctored digital set-tops. But the equipment is fraudulent, investigators said.

So far, the unauthorized sale of digital converters is minimal, but that's because few systems have completely converted to digital programming, security operatives said. Criminally minded individuals can still steal cable signals easily using a doctored analog converter. As digital penetration increases, that pirate market will be curbed — but the pressure for hackers to break the digital code will build.

"By ignoring the continuing profit from analog theft, we're creating a war chest for the bad guys that they're using to hit the digital box," warned security consultant Stan Durey.

Companies should definitely keep tabs on local tag sales, pawnshops and Internet marketing of digital hardware.

"Cable operators … should take any means necessary to keep boxes from falling into the wrong hands," said attorney Geoff Beauchamp.

Anti-theft professionals are alarmed about the results from recent focus-group studies conducted on behalf of the industry's Anti-Theft Task force. Public feedback shows that while consumers are nervous about participating in any theft of high-speed data service, basic attitudes about cable programming theft have not changed in the digital era.

"No one sees the operator as their best friend," Durey said.