Fans of the epic fantasy series Game of Thrones were understandably eager for the season premier earlier this month. After all, we’d waited since mid-2012 to renew our shared hatred for the most abhorrent monarch in television history, King Joffrey. But while the show’s popularity is good news for creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, the high demand also makes it a desirable target for malware distributors. In the twenty-four hours following the Game of Thrones season premier on March 31st, more than 1 million fans illegally downloaded copies of the show—many of them infecting their computers in the process.
Malware (short of malicious software) is a type of program designed to interrupt the normal operation of a computer, often stealing private information or slowing down the computer’s processing speed. Viruses, spyware, Trojans, ransomware and adware are all forms of malware. Hackers often disguise malware by packaging it alongside video or audio content, which is then downloaded on peer-to-peer file sharing networks.
Known in Internet shorthand as “P2P,” peer-to-peer networks allow users to download media files such as music, movies, TV shows, and games from other connected computers. Sometimes this type of file sharing is legal (such as downloading an open source book), but many times, it is considered illegal “pirating” of copyrighted content. The first well-known generation of P2P software was Napster, which gained fame in the early 2000s after running into legal difficulties over copyright infringement. Other examples you may have heard of include services like Kazaa, Limewire, and BitTorrent.
In the case of Game of Thrones, since the malware files were packaged with the TV show file, but weren’t a part of the file itself, malware creators relied on the widespread use a specific P2P network, BitTorrent, to infect computers. BitTorrent is different from other P2P networks, because it works by downloading pieces of a file from several other computers at once, putting them together correctly once they’ve been copied to your machine. This allows for faster download speeds, but it also means that malware creators can easily sneak malicious software into any popular download (like Game of Thrones).
Of course, there’s a simple way to protect your Internet connected devices from getting infected – don’t download copyrighted content from P2P networks. Of course, this is easier said than done if you have teenagers in the house, which is why I encourage all parents to have a conversation about the dangers of P2P networks before an infection occurs. In addition, make sure you have security software like McAfee All Access running and up-to-date, which will effectively protect all devices in your home.