Did a Rupert Murdoch company go too far and hire hackers to sabotage rivals and gain the top spot in the global pay-TV war?
This is the question a jury will be facing in a spectacular five-year-old civil lawsuit that is finally being tried this month in California but which has, oddly, received little notice from U.S. media.
The case involves a colorful cast of characters that includes former intelligence agents, Canadian TV pirates, Bulgarian and German hackers, stolen e-mails and the mysterious suicide of a Berlin hacker who had been courted by the Murdoch company not long before his death.
On the hot spot is NDS Group, a UK-Israeli firm that makes smartcards for pay-TV systems like DirecTV. The company is a majority-owned subsidiary of Murdoch's News Corporation. The charges stem from 1997 when NDS is accused of cracking the encryption of rival NagraStar, which makes access cards and systems for EchoStar's Dish Network and other pay-TV services. Further, it's alleged NDS then hired hackers to manufacture and distribute counterfeit NagraStar cards to pirates to steal Dish Network's programming for free.
NagraStar and one of its parent companies, EchoStar, are seeking about $101 million for damages for piracy, copyright infringement, misconduct and unfair competition. The list of witnesses in the case includes EchoStar's founder and CEO Charlie Ergen; several hackers and pirates; and Reuven Hazak, an Israeli who heads security for NDS and is a former deputy head of Shabak, or Shin Bet, Israel's domestic security agency (the equivalent of Britain's MI5).
The case, which began April 9 in the U.S. District Court's Central Division in Santa Ana, California, could conceivably result in an award of hundreds of millions of dollars, although neither side is expected to emerge unscathed from testimony that threatens to expose the messy underbelly of the high-stakes pay-TV industry.
As if to emphasize this point, U.S. District Judge David O. Carter said after the proceedings began that he was concerned that the case would hinge on testimony from known lawbreakers like hackers and pirates, who have been employed by the companies on both sides of the lawsuit. The judge urged the plaintiffs and defendant to settle rather than face potentially devastating harm to their reputations.
EchoStar wouldn't comment on the case while it's ongoing, but Jim Davis, a senior analyst with the 451 Group, a market research firm, said the company isn't likely to settle.
"It gets taken very personal when your security product has been hacked," he said. "And to have a competitor do that through, allegedly, the services of a known hacker, has got to be particularly galling to NagraStar."
As for NDS, which currently has more than 75 million access cards on the market, Davis says the company probably sees the trial as an opportunity to defend against the image that it is "simultaneously promoting a product that secures networks while working with folks that work outside the law [to break networks]."
The company said in a statement to Wired.com: "We are confident our position will be upheld at a trial."