Intel's High-bandwidth Digital Content Protection (HDCP), which is its copy protection system for audio and video, has been cracked by a German research team using off-the-shelf products, to prove that there are flaws in its encryption.

HDCP sits inside nearly every HDMI or DVI-compatible TV or computer flat screen. It serves to pass digital content from a protected source, such as a Blu-ray, to the screen via an encrypted channel. The entertainment industry has used the protocol for nearly a decade to prevent users from copying and pirating movies and games.

However, researchers at the Secure Hardware Group of Germany's Ruhr University of Bochum (RUB) have cracked Intel’s encryption protocol with a “man-in-the-middle” attack, using a €200 (£170) ATLYS board from the company Digilent and a Xilinx Spartan-6 FPGA.

Last year, an HDCP master key, which is intended to form the secret core element of the encryption system, was leaked briefly online. Although Intel claimed that HDCP was still safe, Bochum’s researchers decided to test the strength of its encryption.

In the experiment, the ATLYS FPGA board was able to manipulate the entire communication between the Blu-ray player and the flat screen TV without being detected.

“We were able to tap the HDCP encrypted data streams, decipher them and send the digital content to an unprotected screen via a corresponding HDMI 1.3-compatible receiver,” said principal investigator Prof. Dr.-Ing. Tim Güneysu.

While the weak point will be of little interest for pirates, due to the availability of simpler alternatives, Güneysu said that it could pose a real threat to security-critical systems such as those used by the military.

“The fact that we have achieved our goal in a degree thesis and with material costs of approximately €200 definitely does not speak for the safety of the current HDCP system,” he added.