'Free' streaming sites on the rise as people stay at home, but they may be illegal and even host malware

A number of links to such sites have been widely shared. PHOTO: SCREENGRAB FROM MOVIES123

SINGAPORE - If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. And that adage holds true for websites claiming to offer free access to thousands of the latest movies and television series.

Other than the obvious fact that many of these sites are likely infringing on copyright, they may also carry embedded malware and can infect your devices, said experts.

A number of links to such sites have been widely shared on platforms such as Facebook and WhatsApp recently, as more users seek various entertainment options online while they stay at home amid measures to combat the transmission of Covid-19.

Some of these platforms, such as Nites.tv and Movies123, are even promoted as "legal" under the guise that American authorities have made it so to help viewers cope during this period.

Other content, including the entire library of Marvel Cinematic Universe titles, are being shared via shortened Bitly links on WhatsApp. These are hosted on other movie sites such as 9movies.to

A check with cyber security experts and lawyers here however has indicated that these sites and content links are illegal and should not be viewed or shared.

Movies123, for example, has a disclaimer stating that content on the site is "provided by non-affiliated third parties", which suggests that the site does not have authorisation from the copyright owners to publish their works, said Mr Andy Leck, who heads the intellectual property practice at Baker McKenzie Wong & Leow.

Meanwhile, Nites.tv, which has become popular among users worldwide, was taken down by the Alliance for Creativity and Entertainment in the United States due to copyright infringement earlier this week.

Mr Leck said that it is potentially an infringement of copyright to share such links with other people, even if one is not running the site.

"While a person who sends a hyperlink of an illegal streaming site is differentiated from a person who operates the site, the person may possibly be deemed as having authorised copyright infringement, which is in itself considered an act of infringement as well," he told The Straits Times.

When contacted, a spokesman from the Intellectual Property Office of Singapore, which advises on and administers intellectual property laws, said that users are encouraged to check that any content offered has obtained the necessary rights from the relevant content rights holders to avoid any potential contravention of the Copyright Act.

Under Singapore's Copyright Act, it is a criminal offence for a person or company to conduct wilful copyright infringement.

Even if someone is not caught for copyright infringement, he risks having his device exposed to malicious software on these streaming sites.

The user may get bombarded with unwanted ads, have his personal information and files from his device stolen, or even have his device taken over entirely. This can happen with a mere click on the link, even if he did not stream a film.

Mr Stephan Neumeier, managing director for Asia-Pacific at cyber security firm Kaspersky, said that online streaming sites have become a "hot spot of cyber-criminal activity", as they take advantage of what users are interested in, such as a particularly popular movie title.

He added: "Hackers have used these sites to insert malicious files, masked behind the name of movie or TV files to fool viewers. Our statistics show that one of the most commonly found malware on video streaming or download sites is the WinLNK Trojan, a malware that is designed to destroy, block, modify or copy data, as well as interfere with the operation of computers or computer networks."

Mr Paul Hadjy, chief executive of Horangi Cyber Security, said that to be safe, one should never click on unknown links. He said: "People should be cautious about shared links, even if they come from people they trust."

This article has been edited for clarity.

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