In 2018 it was revealed that illegal online casinos are sponsoring huge numbers of pirate videos in Russia. One of the major players, Azino777, was accused of financing camcorder piracy and embedding its logos and watermarks into thousands of videos. Now, however, a blunder by a court in Ukraine has accidentally unmasked a major suspect in a criminal investigation into Azino777.
Last September, international cyber-security firm Group-IB revealed that almost all movies released in 2018 had been leaked online.
While that isn’t particularly surprising, the company went on to highlight the activities of an organized group of “camcording” pirates in Russia.
“This group is financed by online-casinos, which support online-pirates as well. Online-casinos integrate their ads in the pirated copies and TV-shows in the form of logos, captioning or even as audio tracks,” Andrey Busargin, Director of Brand Protection at Group-IB, told TorrentFreak.
According to Group-IB, the major player utilizing this tactic is Azino777. The gambling service is unlicensed and therefore illegal in Russia. Under orders from the court, it is currently blocked by local ISPs along with hundreds of its own mirror sites. Nevertheless, the business is doing everything it can to recruit new customers.
In 2018, Azino777 was reported to be one of Russia’s top advertisers, outspending leading search engines Yandex and Google, and even Coca Cola and Pepsi. Now, however, a crisis could be looming following a blunder by a court in neighboring Ukraine.
Online casinos are illegal in Ukraine, so the authorities there have been taking a keen interest in Azino777. Following a criminal investigation by local police, it’s reported that the casino’s alleged offices in Kiev were raided in June 2018 and equipment seized.
This week, Russian news outlet The Bell discovered that a court in Kiev had failed to redact the name of 33-year-old Russian IT expert Albert Valiakhmetov from documents relating to that operation. The publication’s investigation, which references Ukraine court documents, indicates that the Russian is the suspected creator of Azino777.
While Azino777 is still operational, it’s clear that the heat is being turned up on the operation, both in Russia and Ukraine, which could have a potential impact on the piracy landscape in both countries.
Last week, TorrentFreak reported on data provided by Group-IB, which indicated that streaming piracy in Russia is dominated by professionals operating ‘pirate’ CDNs ( Content Distribution Networks) that not only supply movies and TV shows, but also additional services that make it easy to setup and maintain a pirate site. According to Group-IB, Azino777 is deeply involved.
“Azino777 has become an integral part of the existing ecosystem of pirated content in Russia. Azino777 closely cooperates with key pirated resources, placing advertising on such pirate CDNs as Moonwalk (the largest in Russia) and HDGO (second most popular),” says Dmitry Tyunkin, Deputy Director Anti-Piracy at Group-IB.
“In the case of Moonwalk, most often pre-roll and mid-roll ads are bought
(excluding ad inserts in the body of the video). In the case of HDGO, a unique precedent was achieved; the advertising network was built into the player. This meant that, apart from the classic pre-roll/mid-roll ads, all new content uploaded into the player is marked with a watermark and advertising within the video file itself.”
The amount of advertising in each title depends on the popularity of the release. Tyunkin says that the number of ads can vary between one and four, and can even include audio ads that are dubbed at the request of Azino777. Given the number of releases, the scale is impressive.
According to Group-IB data, in 2018 a total of 218 movies appeared in ‘cam’ format, with more than 90% of them containing advertising. TV shows posted with exclusive voiceovers exceeded 540 titles. Overall, the company believes that Azino777 is responsible for around 1,415 movie releases and 1,835 TV shows.
Group-IB says it can’t put a value on the revenues generated by these activities but says that the advertising format (via pirated content) is effective. The content spreads naturally and advertising on pirate sites is cheap – four to five times less than on equivalents in the US or EU – and the number of sites is huge.
“The estimated number of existing portals that are indirectly (through advertising networks and pirate CDNs such as HDGO) or directly linked to this casino is approximately 6,100 portals,” Tyunkin says.
Interestingly, Azino777 isn’t the only – or indeed first – company to embark on this kind of mass marketing. Group-IB says that JoyCasino was the first to experiment with the pirate model, with 1XBet trying the same in India and English speaking countries.
In short, there are takers around to fill the niche, even if Azino777 somehow falls.