Be wary of malware from free video streaming websites

Illegal streaming websites often contain malware disguised as pirated video files.
Illegal streaming websites often contain malware disguised as pirated video files.PHOTO: UNSPLASH

Beware of websites offering free streams or downloads of Brooklyn Nine-Nine or The Invisible Man because chances are, these websites are rife with malware, according to a study released on Tuesday (June 23)  by cyber-security firm McAfee.

Cop comedy Brooklyn Nine-Nine topped McAfee's list of the television shows most targeted by cyber criminals, while horror film The Invisible Man was No. 1 in the movie category.

The study found that movies that were released this year account for nine out of the top 10 movies identified as having a high risk of being targeted by cyber criminals.

McAfee says these illegal streaming websites often contain malware disguised as pirated video files.

Users who download these "videos" may end up being infected by the malware, which can steal personal information and passwords stored on the device.

The cyber-security firm warns that any device used to browse the Internet, like a computer, a mobile device or even an Android TV box, are potentially vulnerable to malicious software.

While retail stores and eateries have reopened recently in Singapore, cinemas are still closed and are likely to remain so for the foreseeable future.

Thus, Singaporeans looking for their movie fix online need to be wary, lest they end up "downloading malware with their free content", warns McAfee.

"The circuit breaker period has seen a spike in online video consumption as Singaporeans shift to alternative entertainment platforms, creating the perfect storm for cybercrime," says Mr Shashwat Khandelwal, head of McAfee's South-east Asia consumer business.

Half of the top 10 television shows targeted by cyber criminals are original content produced by Netflix.

McAfee suggests the exclusivity of these shows means that non-subscribers to streaming services that have these shows are searching for other ways to watch them, making these shows attractive targets for cyber criminals.

 
 

To produce this list of top 10 most targeted movies and television shows, McAfee searched more than 90 entertainment titles mentioned by local publications that are available from Singapore streaming providers, together with search modifiers such as "free download" and "torrent".

The Web results were then analysed using McAfee's WebAdvisor service, which checks websites for potential malware.

About 1,000 potentially malicious websites targeting Singaporeans looking for free movies and television shows were identified during this process.

Cyber-security experts warn that users should take extra precautions while browsing free streaming websites.

McAfee suggests that parental controls be used on devices used by children and teenagers, because while they may be tech-savvy enough to search for movies and television shows by themselves, they may not be sufficiently alert to malicious or inappropriate websites.

Mr Chua Bo Si, technical program manager of cyber-security firm HackerOne, says: "Be careful in disabling security features and allowing untrusted applications or installing browser extensions originating from these web pages."

Mr Yeo Siang Tiong, South-east Asia general manager of cyber-security firm Kaspersky, says: "It is important that users continue to pay attention to things such as: using legitimate streaming services; paying attention to the downloaded file extension; avoid clicking on suspicious links that promise an early view of a movie."

With live sports, arts and music events cancelled during the past months due to the ongoing pandemic, there has been a global surge in demand for streaming video.

Netflix gained 15.8 million new customers from January to March this year - double its earlier forecast of seven million.

The average minutes spent weekly on Netflix in four South-east Asia countries - Indonesia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand - increased by 115 per cent between January and April this year, according to research firm Media Partners Asia.

 
 

But there has also been a corresponding rise in video piracy.

Piracy analyst firm Muso found that global film piracy increased by more than 33 per cent when governments enacted lockdown measures during the pandemic.

Singapore, too, has experienced a spike in piracy in recent months.

"According to our research, consumption on piracy sites jumped from an average of 11.6 million minutes a week in the last week of January to a peak of 41.7 million (minutes a week) in mid-February to mid-March (Feb 17 to March 15)," says Mr Anthony Dobson, managing director of AMPD Research, a subsidiary of Media Partners Asia.

Mr Chua says the unavailability of content and the unwillingness to pay recurring fees for content are the two biggest factors for video piracy. The pandemic has also affected many people financially, making them less willing to pay for content, he says.

Keeping up with the hottest television shows from the United States and Britain is why Melvin (not his real name) prefers to download them using the BitTorrent peer-to-peer file sharing technology instead of subscribing to a streaming provider.

"I would be happy to pay for Netflix. But the shows that interest me like The Morning Show (on Apple TV+) and Good Omens (on Amazon Prime Video) are unavailable," he says. It does not make sense to subscribe to several streaming platforms just to watch a couple of shows, he adds.

Exacerbating this dilemma for customers is the boom in streaming services in recent years.

As content owners such as Disney, NBCUniversal and WarnerMedia launch their own streaming platforms, they are taking back the rights to their content from third-party platforms.

For instance, popular US sitcom The Office is slated to leave Netflix's US catalogue next year to return to NBCUniversal's new Peacock streaming service.

Those who want to watch a variety of content may have to subscribe to multiple streaming platforms, which adds up in cost.

Despite subscribing to both Amazon Prime Video and Netflix, Leon (not his real name) still downloads videos illegally because he is not satisfied with the content available.

"If there is a service that had all the movies and television shows I want, I would pay up to $50 a month for it," he says.

However, Mr Aravind Venugopal, vice-president of Media Partners Asia, says that a fragmented market is unlikely to drive users towards piracy.

He suggests that with consumers unwilling to spend on more than a few streaming services, subscribers will instead share their account login details with friends and family members to get the most value out of their subscriptions.

Both Leon and Melvin are unperturbed by the risks involved in visiting illegal streaming websites.

Melvin says his personal computer has "nothing important" and is used just for downloads and gaming.

And while Leon has encountered malware warnings from his browser and antivirus software while browsing these websites, his computer has yet to be hit by malware.

MCAFEE'S TOP 10 MOST TARGETED ENTERTAINMENT TITLES

MOVIES

1. The Invisible Man

2. My Spy

3. The Way Back

4. Bloodshot

5. Gretel & Hansel

6. Frozen 2

7. Jumanji

8. Birds Of Prey

9. The Gentlemen

10. Trolls World Tour

TELEVISION SHOWS

1. Brooklyn Nine-Nine

2. Daredevil

3. Sherlock

4. Ozark

5. Babylon Berlin

6. Dare Me

7. Toy Boy

8. Beastars

9. Star Wars

10. The Circle