back to article Virgin Media set-top box modder gets 5 years

A man from Birmingham has been jailed for five and a half years for his role in a cable TV fraud. Mohammed Ali, 35, was sentenced last week for selling modified set-top boxes that can receive free channels. Three other men were also convicted of involvement in the fraud. Umar Manir, 28, was handed 18 months' jail and ordered …


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  1. Rogerborg

    Take that, Little Englanders

    See, this is why we need highly skilled immigrants to perform those tech jobs that local workers won't touch.

  2. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Go title yourself.

    "Later this month, we will introduce a new encryption process in Birmingham, which is already rolling out across other parts of the UK now,"

    I wonder if this could explain the sudden inability of my TV box to pick up most of the channels I pay for, and Virgin's customer "service" rep's inability to fix it? That's some top encryption right there.

  3. Slartybardfast

    PR Speak

    "This will protect our existing customers and make it impossible for others to take our services unless they pay for them legitimately"

    I just wish they would say what they mean for once. It'll stop the thieving bastards nicking our service and doing us out of money. "Protect our existing customers" my arse..

    1. DrXym

      From a certain point of view

      If their customers could get service for free, they'd no longer be customers. So in that sense they're protecting them by stamping on free hacks. They're protecting customer numbers in other words and have lower overheads that they don't have to pass onto to customers. Doesn't mean Virgin won't jack up their prices for other reasons, but supporting freeloaders is not one of them.

    2. pablo011


      Its always "been virtually impossible" to crack the new uncrackable solution... still we use hacked modems, set top boxes, xbox's... and now PS3's.


  4. eJ2095

    Nagra 3

    Well as far as i am aware they have alredy switched over to Nagra 3 encrption which as of yet has not been cracked.

    Also Virgin are now using software to detect modem clones on there network

    1. DrXym

      The answer to that

      Is to do what Sky do. Put the decryption onto a card / cam and swap it from time to time based on perceived thread. The beauty of DVB-CSA is you can have multiple encryption schemes running at once, allowing a period of transition between the two scheme, or for boxes by different manufacturers to use different crypto schemes.

      Virgin could even start decking out new customers with boxes which use a cable modem to talk with a centralized crypto server. It would make cracking virtually impossible short of someone being able to brute force the CSA payload. Once computers get fast enough to brute force the CSA encryption in realtime, then all bets are off until DVB-CSA2 turns up.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Paris Hilton

        @The answer to that

        I'm not very knowledgeable about such things, but if you run the old and new encryption schemes together for a short period, and someone has cracked the old one, doesn't that make it easier to crack the new one?

        You've got two identical streams encrypted in different ways, one of which you know how to decrypt giving you the decrypted signal of the 2nd stream. Can't you then work backwards to decrypt the 2nd stream?

        Me confoozed :(

        1. Stuart Castle Silver badge

          Re:@ The answer to that.

          That would enable you to get the key. However, the whole process is made a lot more complicated by the fact that DOCSIS 3 enables them to change keys regularly, maybe once every few hours.

        2. DrXym


          Not really. The way crypto works in DVB-CSA is a little tricky to explain but here goes:

          a) The crypto in the STB (Irdeto, Nagravision, Videoguard etc) listens for entitlement control messages in the incoming transport stream. The content of these ECMs is unique & proprietary for each crypto scheme.

          b) The proprietary crypto scheme cracks open the payload and extracts a descramble key. The descramble key is just a random 64 bit number.

          c) The descramble key is plugged into the CSA algorithm to decrypt the video / audio content. The key is only good for a second or so and then another one is sent.

          Steps b & c) are common to every DVB-CSA implementation and a) is unique. A cable company can transition from one form of crypto or run a couple side by side, sending ECMs for both kinds of boxes at the same time. A cracker might be able to compromise a) in one scheme but it would not necessarily help them crack the others unless the schemes were related in some way.

          Theoretically two ECMs for different boxes do contain the same descramble key so if you know the key from one ECM it might help you crack the other, but I expect that every scheme ensures to salt (put random stuff in and around the key) to stop this. More modern STBs also do 2-way crypto (i.e. they need a cable modem) so it's not enough to just read what's on the wire.

          I don't think it will be long before someone starts selling brute force devices that simply try every possible combination of descramble key until they find the right one. Then it won't matter what crypto is in the box because DVB-CSA will be completely broken. If that happens the shit will hit the fan since you'll be able to plug a CAM of any kind into bog standard satellite / cable receiver and watch ANYTHING.

          I expect at that point that Sky et al will have to replace their older boxes. I imagine their more recent boxes may be capable of DVB-CSA2 & 3. I don't know much about either but I expect the keylength and crypto algorithm is a lot stronger to resist brute force attacks.

      2. Chris 2

        isn't that

        what they do already? The card thing I mean. We got new cards a month or so ago.

      3. Anonymous Coward

        Wouldn't be so impressed with SKY.

        Prior to a rewrite of the payment gateway for mobile purchase, 1 in 10 boxes shared the same decryption key due to the limited range of the code used and the cobbled together *in house* crypto (not worth the name).

        After the rewrite, now *only* 1 in 1000 boxes shares the same key. Still stored on the box, but at least now they use a reasonable cypher.

        Still, the code only protected some really crap games so *shrug* not so big a deal, still if you're going to implement crypto then use a cryptographer and do it properly.

  5. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Oh dear

    5 years for fiddling a big faceless company out of some money but this guy only got just over twice that for repeatedly raping two women.

    1. handle


      So should the rapist get more, or this guy get less?

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Doing a little maths...

      ...screwing a company without their permission is about the same (in the eyes of the law) as doing the same to a woman without hers.

      Something isn't right there.

  6. TeeCee Gold badge


    The top man in this "boxing" ring is Mohammed Ali?

    Pull the other one, it's got bells on.

  7. Nick Ryan Silver badge

    What I don't understand...

    "Mohammed Ali, 35, was sentenced last week for selling modified set-top boxes that can receive free channels."

    They're free - what's the problem? Even if you stop paying for VM services, you can still receive free to air channels using the cable network. At least that was how it used to work. Receiving non-free channels, now that's a different matter...

    "CY4OR, a digital forensics consultancy, compiled crucial evidence to prove the set-top boxes had been illegally modified."

    It is NOT illegal to modify them, just against the Ts&Cs of connection. There is the problem of ownership of course, but (IIRC) the rules on abandonment comes into play here - if you have an old STB and tell inform Virgin Media that you have it and they need to arrange to recover it and don't, within a certain amount of time it's considered yours.

    1. Anonymous Coward

      @if you have an old STB and tell inform Virgin Media

      I'm in the process of leaving VM so I can tell you the arrangement is now they send you a pre-paid carrier bag and you post their junk back to them. If you fail to do that in a reasonable time they send you a bill

    2. Gaz Jay

      I think you've mis-understood

      The boxes were not modified to view the free channels... you can get those already without any kind of subscription. They were modified to view the premium channels (I.E. Sky Sports) for free.

      Also, in my experience, modified boxes have not actually been Virgin Medias own boxes. They have been third party DVB-C boxes that anyone can buy that have been modified. I believe this is completely legal because you can do whatever you like to a box you yourself own. What is not legal is plugging this into a cable connection as it will break the T&Cs of the connection.

      Exactly what they got arrested and convicted for is not mentioned in this article. I'm guessing that the law new that these guys were responsible for a large number of "modded" boxes on the market, but jailed them under other criminal acts.

  8. Smudge@mcr

    A mad world

    5 and a half years for stealing cable TV!!!

    Should have tried mugging old ladies with violence. He would have only got 20 hours community service from our "World Class" justice system.

    You can see where the priorities of the British Legal System lie with this case.

    If you rob peoples home , assault innocent people or make peoples lives a misery you get a slap on the wrist.


    If you dare to steal from a big corporation like Virgin Media the whole weight of the law is brought to bare.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      A mad world

      No surprise is it really, there are loads of examples of dumb justice in the UK. Probably all reported here, like the guy who got arrested for arms possession - Lara Croft Cutout, or the old man who put razor wire on his fence to stop a repetetive burglar and was convicted and had to pay the burglar damages.

  9. Jord

    @oh dear

    Think that's bad? This guy got LESS time than the Virgin employee for stabbing and killing someone:

    Gotta love our judicial system eh?

  10. Geoff Webber
    Big Brother


    I seem to remember Homer Simpson had one of these boxes years ago, this isn't a new story!

  11. Wize

    Surely its not illegal to modify something you own.

    Isn't the illegal part when they are used?

    Unless the boxes are knocked off or some copyright is broken with software in the modified boxes?

    Just like its legal to own a radar jammer, but not to turn it on.

    1. Keith 21

      That's true, but... don't own the Virgin box, the T&C clearly state that it remains Virgin's property.

    2. Anonymous Coward

      Rent, not own

      You don't own the cable boxes with Virgin, you rent them.

    3. Anonymous Coward

      you don't own the cable tv box

      it is virgin's

  12. Wang N Staines

    @A mad world

    Do you know much it costs to reside a judge in his/her mansion?

    1. Anonymous Coward

      "Do you know much it costs to reside a judge in his/her mansion?"

      No - but I know they stay in 5 star accommodation when they work away from home.


    Paying for Content Legitimately?

    This from the same company that were proposing to steal intellectual property from every website in the world, and feed it into Phorm without paying a single penny for it.

  14. Jayw


    Good to see our police are hard at work protecting Virgins profits.

    1. stu 19


      heh maybe they contribut to a "police retirement fund"

    2. Anonymous Coward

      "Good to see our police are hard at work protecting Virgins profits."

      That's what they're here for.

      RIAA (ref OINK), BFI, Virgin Media - how can we serve?

      /sarcasm off

  15. Robin Hood

    Three cents worth...

    The only reason cracked STB's are useful is for sports and that's not going to last long with new boxes that talk to servers changing keys every couple of hours.

    Just build/buy a cheap XBMC/BOXEE/MythTV box and get a much better range of TV & Films than Virgin or Sky provide.

    PS. For all the good stuff (ie reason people are chipping these boxes) you'll need a certain plugin.


    1. A Known Coward

      Don't malign MythTV

      MythTV does not condone piracy. In fact it's actively discouraged, the project has no wish to be associated with thieving bastards.

      MythTV is for legal recording of television and viewing/listening of media you have legally purchased.

      The project cannot control what third party plugins are created unfortunately, that's the nature of open source but go use XBMC if you want sympathetic treatment.

  16. Anonymous Coward
    Thumb Down

    Title? Oh, hang on a sec while I think of something witty. Erm, err, umm... Got it! An Englishm-

    "Mohammed Ali, 35, was sentenced last week for selling modified set-top boxes that can receive free channels"

    "The group were arrested in 2008, when 2,000 illegally modified set-top boxes were found during police raids..."

    So had he sold them, or did he still have them? Or did he have some left and had sold others? Did he keep VAT receipts? Is that how they knew he'd sold some?

    You could claim that he had 2000 left, so he must have sold others, but is suspicion now taken as fact in British courts?

    1. Anonymous Coward

      " suspicion now taken as fact in British courts?"

      I think we all know the answer to that.

      Conviction by EVIDENCE is so 20th century. Its called New British justice (sic).

  17. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    They don't try and crack the new encyption

    Just extract the key from the memory of a single hacked box with a full subscription to every channel and share that over the internet in real time to the owners own HD Cable boxes.

    The areas are making the switch one by one so it's possible Birmingham is just going over.

  18. Carl Thomas

    Reasonable Doubt

    Reasonable doubt, or lack of Mr Anonymous. Without that you'd never get anyone prosecuted unless they were caught in the act.

  19. Carl Thomas

    @Stuart Castle

    DOCSIS 3 is nothing to do with the TV service. The keys used to encrypt the content are changed every few seconds. These are different from 'master' keys stored on the cards themselves. These are used to decrypt the keys needed to get at the content.

  20. Anonymous Coward


    Way, way too heavy-handed. Especially compared to how much violent criminals/drug dealers get.

  21. Anonymous Coward

    Juxtepose this!

    You gotta love the ironic situation... if it was not so sick it would be funny. The crazy difference in sentence between these guys and convicted rapists is just unbelievable.

    Equally odd (though far less shocking than the physical violence convictions I agree) is the difference in what Virgin Media think they are allowed to do and what these guys have been imprisoned for.

    VM have a web page on their corporate website dedicated to the news that they continue to believe it will be ok and legal to intercept the private internet data stream of their customers in order to sell the data for behavioural marketing... Contrast THAT with some guys enabling the free use of their data. Meanwhile, over 700 days since the Crown Prosecution Service started looking at evidence of BT Group's Phorm Webwise trials... And because it is so complex (really?) they still have not made a decision. Incapable of saying they will or will not prosecute the company for using the private data of thousands of their customers without telling them.

    It really is a very odd, odd (and corrupt?) world when the above happens.

  22. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    We Are Now Paying For This Geezer

    Typical. Sling him in the slammer so that the taxpayer gets the privilege of paying for his upkeep.

    Why couldn't they just make the punishment fit the crime? Locked room. TV on the whole time which he couldn't control. Full monte of Neighbours for as long as it takes. Let him out whimpering when the series ends. Cheap, cheerful, does the job.

  23. zxxy

    If you think THAT is shocking....

    It looks like this has happened before....

    Take a look at this tragic story. This guy was jailed by Virgin Media for 6 years a few months ago for exactly the same thing. Poor guy might not make it with his life.... it seems that they weren't content with banging him up, they wanted to let him rot as well.

    Seriously, 5 years for the boxer, 6 years for the guy who is fighting for his life.. someone tell me how this is even handed justice? Are we sure Virgin does not have an army of secret coppers and judges getting fatter by the day?

    Don't dare complain on their helpline that you lost a channel or two... they might come after you!

  24. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    @Anonymous Coward

    It's 'juxtapose' and could you guys try giving it a rest about Phorm, etc. CPS are probably so bored of people constantly whining and wasting tax payers' money writing to various public bodies that they have passed out.

  25. Steven Snape
    Thumb Up

    I think 5 years is fair

    I think 5 years is a fair sentence assuming they have been selling hundreds or thousands of these boxes. They took the risk, they failed or got greedy and now they pay. Nice to see a sentence given out that might make others think twice before filling the new gap in the market.

    It might even reduce the amount of smug gits on benefits on council estates bragging about how they get free cable and how they got their gas cooker fitted for free by claiming they could smell gas and all the other scams they learn about down the pub while the rest of the world is out working.

  26. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    It's a crime bonanza for lofty and fingers

    Would have got 3 months suspended if named differently I imagine.

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