Ho Lee Fook

Introduction

Modifying a decoder is an effective method of receiving scrambled television signals without payment, but not a method which is particularly accessible to the layman. Whilst it’s possible for an enterprising TV pirate to pre-modify receivers and decoders and sell them to the less technical viewer, other methods can provide an easier route. One of these routes would be the availability of modified or clone viewing cards which can be used as simply as a legitimate card.

How It Worked

Instead of modifying the decoder’s smartcard communication chip, the same immunity to deactivation (or indeed the ability to arbitrarily activate a channel or subscription package) could be achieved by simply having the card itself ignore or refuse to act upon commands received by the decoder. This would involve replicating the code or the functionality of the code present in a legitimate card, but in a blank card which could be programmed with any desired modifications to its behaviour.

Initially these pirate smartcards are said to have been clumsy, requiring a modified decoder (and thereby lacking the ease of use the technique would later offer), but refinements over time effectively resulted in a card which behaved much like a legitimate card but with the ability to act as a perpetually subscribed card without payment.

Even later designs would gain the ability to be reprogrammed, using microcontrollers which contained EEPROM memory, which can be erased and rewritten electronically, rather than microcontrollers using EPROM memories which cannot. This would allow a pirate card to be reprogrammed with countermeasures in the event that Sky attempted to block such cards.

Some examples of pirate satellite cards can be seen below. The cards were refined over time, using smaller and lower-profile parts and better fitting circuit boards, however the leftmost two examples have socketed chips, this enables rapid iterations during testing or reprogramming with a newer hack in case of countermeasures or a newer viewing card release. A standard viewing card is included for scale.

Initially these hacks used Intel 8752 microcontrollers, but migrated to the Microchip PIC series of chips commonly used by hobbyists for a great many (typically legitimate) electronics projects. An example of such a chip can be seen below, a chip mounted on a pirate card which does not identify the service with which it was intended to be used.

Mitigation

Actual solution employed: Later cards would be of a more complex design, including dedicated circuitry to perform operations which could not be replicated simply by copying the code.

Notes

The name of this hack is said to have been a reference to the exclamation of Sky executives upon learning of its existence.