Study: Cyberlockers profiting from content thieves

Digital Citizens Alliance – a coalition of consumers, businesses, and Internet experts focused on educating the public and policymakers on the threats people from all walks of life face on the Internet – has just released a new report, Behind the Cyberlocker Door: A Report on How Shadowy Businesses Use Credit Card Companies to Make Millions. Drawing on new research from NetNames, the report is a follow-up to this year’s earlier report, Good Money Gone Bad.

The new report investigates the shady underworld of cyberlockers – websites designed to sell and distribute massive amounts of stolen content.

The Digital Citizens Alliance describes cyberlockers as online website services purposefully designed to distribute files – whether they are text, pictures, images, videos, movies, or music – globally and without restrictions. “Users upload whatever content they choose and people come to the site to download or stream the content, unaware of who originally uploaded it and whether it is stolen content (hint: it usually is),” it advises.

The Alliance says that while they act similarly to cloud storage services such as DropBox, Box, and Amazon Cloud Drive, cyberlockers operate on a completely different business model. Cyberlockers make their money off of people paying to anonymously download stolen content – in fact, they incentivise the use of copyrighted material.

Legitimate cloud services are also quick to terminate the accounts of users who regularly share stolen material. While some cyberlockers claim they follow the same guidelines, the study found this policy is rarely enforced. Instead, cyberlockers are profiting off of these content thieves and other bad actors – and raking in millions in the process:

  • 80 per cent of content found on the top 30 cyberlockers is stolen.

  • Using other people’s stolen creative works, cyberlockers make nearly $100 million annually; just one of these sites made $17 million last year alone.

  • Cyberlockers make their money from two primary sources—premium subscriptions and advertising.

  • Out of the 25 cyberlockers we examined that offered premium subscriptions, 24 accepted Visa and MasterCard.

According to the Alliance, that’s all it takes for the cyber criminals running these sites to succeed – a market for stolen content and the complacency of payment processors, advertisers, and other Internet stakeholders.

Cyberlockers allow virtually anyone to upload content for others to download or stream, meaning the stolen content being uploaded to a cyberlocker could be infected with malware, spyware, or adware, warns the Alliance. These sites are also are intentionally designed to limit their own knowledge of what files are being uploaded or streamed at any given time—making it even more difficult to hold them accountable.

Downloading or interacting with stolen content puts cyberlocker users at very serious risk of being infected with malware or becoming victims of identity theft – a problem that is especially dangerous for kids, it warns.

Simply by downloading or streaming the stolen content off of rogue cyberlockers, people are putting themselves in harm’s way and attributing to the degradation of the Internet from a place where everyone is comfortable and safe to one where bad actors hide in the shadows, making a fortune off of other people’s content and creations, it contends.

It says that while this all may seem rather daunting, there are ways to work together to address this growing problem. “To begin, sharing our report’s findings with your friends, family, and coworkers can help Digital Citizens raise awareness. Many people aren’t aware of what a cyberlocker is or how they work – let alone the dangers they face if they use their services – so share our report with others to help us get the word out,” says the Alliance.

Another action it says is equally important (if not more so) is to demand better of the payment processors such as Visa and MasterCard and advertisers, who often sit idly by as rogue cyberlockers use their networks to help fuel their illicit trade.

“Payment processors especially have a role to play in cleaning up these illicit cyberlocker sites. They have the capability to remove their systems from these sites and it’s time for them to take responsibility for making the Internet a safer place by helping address the growing problem of content theft and abuse,” declares the Alliance.

“By working together with payment processors, advertisers, consumers, Internet safety organisations, and government officials, we can protect an open, safe Internet free of the scourge of rogue cyberlockers and other content thieves,” it concludes.

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