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Unauthorized streams of sports, from the NFL to MLB to World Cup soccer, may be appealing, but they carry security and privacy risks
Chris Stanley will do just about anything to watch his beloved Jacksonville Jaguars, even if that means jeopardizing the security of his personal information.
Stanley, a 39-year-old from New York City, regularly combs platforms like Discord, Reddit, and Telegram to find free sports streams to keep tabs on the Jags, the rest of the NFL, and practically every other major sporting event.
“There’s millions of other people doing this,” he says over a Discord voice chat. “It’s happening right now as this interview is going on.”
These streams may be convenient, especially if you’ve cut the cord and no longer have the right television channels to watch your favorite sports, but experts warn that consumers face a litany of security and privacy risks.
“Even if you go back 20 years, people have always wanted to get the latest song or DVD off the internet,” says Jason Weber, corporate vice president of web defense at Microsoft. “However, there’s usually a malicious exchange of value that occurs.”
For one, free sports streams are typically hosted on websites that shill bogus products and services, hoping to separate you from your credit card number and other personal data. These websites may also be covered in pornography and other unwanted content.
Then there’s malware, which, depending on the strain, can do things like lock you out of your computer until you’ve paid a ransom, or sift through your documents to find bank account passwords and other potentially lucrative information.
One minute you’re simply trying to see Patrick Mahomes make fools of the rest of the NFL, the next moment a hacker on the other side of the planet is stealing your computer’s processing power to secretly mine cryptocurrency.
“If you’re trying to find something that’s for free, there’s a reason that it’s free,” says Nick Biasini, head of outreach for Cisco Talos, the company’s cybersecurity division. “Nothing is truly free on the internet.”
Given that the NFL is in full swing, the MLB postseason has begun, and the new NHL and NBA seasons have started, not to mention that World Cup soccer is beginning in November, we suspect that shady free sports streams will be very tempting over the next few weeks.
To be clear, these streams are illicit, and they tend to endanger their viewers. We don’t condone viewing them. However, there are a handful of things you can do to stay a little safer if you do decide to partake.
Let’s start with what we’re not talking about.
We’re not talking about services like MLB.TV or NFL+, which are provided by the leagues themselves and typically offer a mix of live games and highlights. We’re also not talking about streams delivered via so-called cable replacement services like Sling TV or YouTube TV.
These services can be really useful. But there are reasons that people still turn to free, unauthorized sport streams—and it’s not just to avoid paying. The services often have blackouts, where a game is not available in your area because of agreements with broadcasters. Cable replacement services typically don’t carry every network, especially not in every location. And you can face device restrictions, too. NFL+, for example, works only on mobile devices, not big-screen TVs. That may be fine if you’re in bed watching solo in your pajamas, but we can’t imagine too many people want to crowd around your iPhone for Sunday Night Football.
Want to watch Aaron Judge, Gerrit Cole, and the rest of the New York Yankees during the playoffs on MLB.TV? Unless you also subscribe to an eligible pay-TV service, you can’t: All postseason games are blacked out on MLB.TV, according to Major League Baseball. Sorry!
Which leads us to what we are talking about: unofficial, free sports streams.
These streams are not authorized by the leagues or broadcasters, and are often simply a live rebroadcast (or, restream, as it were) of a television channel. Come game day, these streams can be little more than a quick Google search away. And if you’re a cord cutter, even if you’re willing to pay for a premium streaming package like MLB.TV, there may be no other way to catch your game. Go fish.
As for the legality of these free streams, there’s some nuance here.
According to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights group, the provider of the streams may be violating the law by reproducing a copyrighted work. But merely watching a stream, as a consumer? That would not be a violation. At least, that’s what the courts have said so far.
“If I have a pirate printing press and am copying people’s copyrighted books then I am violating copyright law,” says Mitch Stoltz, competition director and senior staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “If you pick up one of those books and read it, you are not violating copyright law.”
Of course, the leagues and their broadcast partners might not see it that way.
To check, we reached out to quite a few of them, including ESPN, Fox Sports, MLB, Nascar, NBC, the NFL, and others. They all either ignored our inquiries or chose not to comment on the record.
One league, which did not want to be named, told us that it uses “measures” to protect its intellectual property but did not elaborate, and acknowledged that new streams pop up frequently.
Still, just because you might not be in violation of the law doesn’t mean you should throw caution to the wind and revel in unlimited free sports goodness.
The people running these free sports streams may be ideologically motivated, hoping to provide a service they believe should be free. But a lot of the time, they’re just trying to make money.
And there are a few ways they can monetize their efforts.
First, they can do what many mainstream websites to monetize their content: run ads.
These ads can be harmless (if a little undesirable—for porn, often), and they generate revenue based on the number of people who see them. Fair enough, putting aside the morality of running ads against content you don’t have permission to use.
Some ads, however, can be laden with malware that plant software on your computer that can seek out files containing sensitive data like phone numbers and bank account passwords.
Malware can also take the form of a cryptocurrency miner, which uses your computer’s spare processing cycles to mine digital currencies and can slow down your computer’s performance.
These ads can be disguised as video players or other software needed to play the stream, hoping to slip past your Spidey Sense and onto your computer.
One particularly nasty type of malware, known as ransomware, can even encrypt, or digitally lock, the files on your computer until you’ve paid a ransom. And even then, there’s no guarantee you’ll actually receive the code to unlock your files! (Ransomware can come from lots of sources beyond illicit sports streams—all the more reason to make sure you regularly back up sensitive data.)
Now you may be thinking to yourself, “Meh, I’ve got an ad blocker, I’ll be fine.”
Ad blockers are browser extensions that try to filter out annoying ads, and some do more. For instance, uBlock Origin will try to screen out all kinds of trackers, pop-ups, malware, and coin miners. But even the best tools aren’t foolproof.
“There are ways to defeat ad blockers,” says Biasini at Cisco Talos. “If I’m honest, and you really want to watch these streams, don’t use a computer.”
That raises an interesting point: So far, we’ve discussed the risks of trying to watch these free sports streams while using a computer. But if we had to guess, many consumers are attempting to watch these streams using a smartphone or tablet. Do the same risks apply there?
Nope, but there are different risks you’ll want to be aware of.
Malware designed to infect a Windows PC naturally won’t work on an Android or iOS mobile device, so if you’re using a mobile device, you can expect to see more scammy come-ons, as opposed to malware.
These scams may take the form of pop-up windows or other advertising claiming that your mobile device is “infected” and that if you don’t call a particular phone number something bad will happen. Or you may be shown a phony Google or Facebook log-in page asking you to authorize or unlock additional content, like a higher-resolution stream.
“The attack surface of a mobile device is a lot smaller than a computer,” Biasini says. “Because of that, you’re going to run the risk of seeing scams more often than malware on a mobile device.”
Again, while we do not condone viewing these streams, there are a handful of steps you can take to protect yourself.
One, if at all possible, is to use a mobile device. The free sports streams will work just as well on your smartphone or tablet as they will on your laptop, and you greatly reduce the risk of contracting malware. You still need to be on the lookout for scams, but as long as you’re not in the habit of calling random 800 numbers and handing over your credit card number to someone who claims to be from Apple or Samsung tech support, you should be at least a little bit safer.
Two, if you are going to use a laptop, make sure this device is fully updated with the latest security patches. This, combined with an ad blocker like uBlock Origin, which blocks ads and pop-ups from appearing in the first place, may help reduce the chance you’ll come across any of this stuff.
As a curveball, we might also suggest looking into getting an over-the-air antenna for your TV.
These can be purchased for around $20 to $30 from retailers like Amazon and, assuming you live within range of your local broadcast channels, can deliver crystal clear high-definition images of at least some games, directly to your TV.
You won’t get ESPN or any other cable channel, but depending on where you live, you can get ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox (along with PBS and some other networks). A price of $20 to $30 is not quite free, but it’s still pretty reasonable, and you won’t have to worry about your data while using it.
Nicholas De Leon
I’ve been covering consumer electronics for more than 10 years for publications like TechCrunch, The Daily (R.I.P.), and Motherboard. When I’m not researching or writing about laptops or headphones I can likely be found obsessively consuming news about FC Barcelona, replaying old Super Nintendo games for the hundredth time, or chasing my pet corgi Winston to put his harness on so we can go for a walk. Follow me on Twitter (@nicholasadeleon).
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