— After years of playing cat-and-mouse with hackers, the nation's leading provider of satellite TV service struck back with an electronic attack so overwhelming that pirates are calling it "Black Sunday."
DirecTV delivered a special signal to millions of receiver boxes in homes across North America last Sunday to shut down the unauthorized access cards used by hackers to capture scores of free channels. Thousands of satellite TV pirates may have to pull out old-fashioned antennas to watch the Super Bowl.
Several hacker Web sites said it could take weeks to take advantage of DirecTV again — if it's possible at all.
From Satellite Dish Back to Rabbit Ears "What I'm telling my customers is that it never hurt anyone to get out the rabbit ears or play with the kids for a few days," a Canadian access card dealer known online as "DLCT" said in an e-mail interview.
DirecTV has about 9.5 million subscribers in the United States, and rival EchoStar Communications' DISH Network counts 4.5 million. A legitimate satellite TV subscription costs anywhere from $22 to $250 per month after an initial outlay of around $150.
DirecTV officials acknowledged that the company uses electronic countermeasures, but they declined to confirm or deny any details about Sunday. A spokesman, Bob Marsocci, said the company "takes satellite signal theft very seriously."
Cat and Mouse Game
Since DirecTV began six years ago, hackers have figured out how to get around paying for it.
First, they buy set-top receivers from former subscribers or over the Internet. Each receiver is equipped with an access card - a smart card with an embedded microchip — that essentially runs the system.
The card is programmed with a unique code, which lets the receiver take from the DirecTV satellite signal only the channels that the subscriber has paid for, and leaves the rest scrambled.
Hackers have figured out ways to program cards that grant access to all channels, including pay-per-view movies and sports events. This is especially popular in Canada, where DirecTV is not licensed to provide service, and where selling hacked access cards and equipment is not a crime.
DirectTV has previously sent out signals to shut down the cards and hackers have parried by devising ways to protect them. On Sunday, DirecTV delivered the digital coup de grace, permanently disabling the cards.
Can They Hack It Again? About 200,000 pirates were sent reeling by Sunday's attack, according to "DeeEssEss," creator and operator of HackHU.com and DishNetHack.com, two Web sites dedicated to those who pirate DirecTV and EchoStar.
"This latest one was a very good deterrent," DeeEssEss said in an e-mail interview.
Immediately following the attack, leading hackers pleaded for patience, assuring clients that the brightest engineers were working on solutions.