ITV’s ONdigital went bust after technology was hacked
Rupert Murdoch’s media empire took another hit last night as BBC’s Panorama revealed that a company with News Corporation links may have sabotaged a competitor’s digital television plans.
The documentary revealed that NDS, a News Corporation affiliated company, hired pirate hackers to decode the technology used in competitor ITV ONdigital’s smart cards. The company later went bust.
The scandal surrounding News Corporation’s print media and phone hacking has been making headlines in recent months. Panorama’s investigation now throws the light on yet another kind of hacking, this time focusing on the ‘commercial heart’ of Murdoch’s empire: pay TV.
In 1998, at the launch of digital TV in the UK the main brands on offer were ITV’s ONdigital and Murdoch owned BSkyB’s Sky TV.
Lee Gibling, a pirate caught hacking into BSkyB’s system was, rather than being castigated, instead employed to crack the ITV smart card codes.
Encrypted smart cards provided the key to the digital television market in the UK. The cards are the means through which digital television companies sell their products to customers.
NDS, a subsidiary of News Corporation, manufactures smartcards for all News Corporations’ pay-TV companies.
However, through a combination of interviews with whistle-blowers, secret filming and leaked internal emails, Panorama revealed that NDS hired expert pirate hackers to decode their rival’s paycards.
Details of the cards’ codes were then posted online, allowing counterfeit copies to be made, effectively undermining ITV ONdigital’s pay-to-view system. The company went bust in 2002.
In his last report for the BBC series, veteran reporter Vivian White weaves a compelling story. The issue, though technical, is brought to life through three main protagonists: Lee Gibling, the pirate caught hacking into BSkyB’s system who, rather than be castigated, was then employed to crack the ITV smart card codes. And from NDS Ray Adams and Len Withall; Adams being the former head of criminal intelligence at the Metropolitan police,and Withall a former Chief Inspector in Surrey.
The story even has literary aplomb. Reconstruction footage of the hackers’ HQ feels like something out of a detective drama, while Gibling’s company is creatively named The House of Ill Compute (THOIC).
Secret recordings of Adams and Withall show men desperate not to be left with the blame. Talking to reporters, but unaware of being filmed, the men pass the buck as to who it was that coordinated with THOIC. Indeed, both men are adamant that they knew nothing about how the cracked ITV codes came to be posted online.
Responding to the allegations NDS released an official statement saying that the company never authorised or condoned posting the codes on any website.
However internal emails suggests both men had received correspondence about the codes and the fact they were leaked to the public.
The two men heading up NDS were Ray Adams, the former head of criminal intelligence at the Metropolitan police,and Len Withall a former Chief Inspector in Surrey.
The story first came to light when, in an ironic twist, hackers targeted the THOIC website and discovered Gibling’s links to NDS. THOIC was hastily disbanded, hard drives were destroyed and it was suggested that Gibling leave the country. He continued to receive payment from NDS until 2008.
The short format of the documentary, it ran at just 30 minutes, meant we never really trace back the links in the chain of companies. James Murdoch recently left News International to focus on BSkyB and we are told he was non-executive director of NDS at the time, though there is no suggestion that he was aware of the hacking.
Ofcom are currently considering whether James Murdoch and News Corporation are ‘fit and proper’ to run BSkyB. Panorama’s investigation will undoubtedly give them food for thought.
The airing of the documentary was postponed for two weeks while News Corporation apparently battled to stop it. The company’s lawyers PSB Law LLP, supposedly sent a confidential legal message to several media warning them not to reproduce the allegations from the Panorama programme. In fact, many outlets reported on the letter, giving the show added publicity.
This is a well made documentary based on a thorough investigation. It is no mean feat to go up against the Goliath of the Murdoch empire, and Panorama certainly battled to get their story out.
Sign up for email alerts from the Bureau here.