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Forensic Watermarking Tool Embeds Trackable Info in Every Frame

Jul 29, 2023

A single injected frame can provide user IDs, IP addresses, and session data.

Amsterdam-based Digital Rights Management (DRM) company castLabs has introduced what it feels is the next step in content protection through a new technique, dubbed "single-frame forensic watermaking". The concept behind the DRM system is to leverage the company's cloud-based "Video Toolkit solution", which processes and protects uploaded content (such as video, images, and documents) by adding "tunable watermarks", which are then redistributed alongside the (now-watermarked and monitored) content.

The basic idea of the service is that it can be applied either standalone or alongside other DRM-protection mechanisms, while offering an additional layer of "tunable" security to any sensitive content. When the content is uploaded through the company's AWS-hosted solution, the company's software secretly embeds identifying information on each frame by "creating unique watermark IDs, [and] strategically hiding them within video frames or other visual digital assets." How strategic that hiding is, however, is unclear: the company does say that at least for video streaming, its service watermarks "every frame entirely", meaning that there must be included redundancies in how the data is encoded across frames.

According to the company, a single frame that's been treated with its "forensic watermark" tech is all that's required to recover the original copyright information - even when attempting to recover data from a picture or video shot of the computer screen (one of the easier ways of defeating metadata-based protections). According to the company, this "blind extraction" capability (where the software detects existing watermarks without knowing whether or not the source file contains it) is one of its differentiators in the content-protection scene. The ability for its watermarking feature to survive digital-to-analog conversion is also relatively striking.

The tool seems to be more geared toward enterprise and industrial-espionage use-cases. Tech companies, for instance, usually distribute advanced information on unreleased-products to journalists, influencers and, distribution partners that's provided under the terms of what are known as non-disclosure. But as the existence of leaks attests, even the existence of physical watermarks and a distribution list can lead to leaks - as soon as information leaves its origin, the Internet takes care of distributing it. The company's solution aims to alleviate this problem immensely.

It's unclear when and if this technology could be used for other mediums. For instance, could this technology be applied to internal game builds, or gone-gold game releases? If this technology finds its way into games, then at least theoretically, anyone "streaming" a pirated version of a game could be caught unaware by the digital rights holder. The idea here might be to include an executable check that verifies online licensing for the game in question, activating the watermark in case of failure. To be clear, that's not happening here, and nothing says it will happen. But with gaming companies in particular being on the forefront of anti-piracy DRM techniques such as Denuvo, it sounds plausible that this sort of "forensic watermarking" would turn around some heads within that sector.

Time will tell; but for now, it seems that per-frame watermarking that survives even media changes has arrived. We're wondering whether AI companies are taking a look at this technology; considering the difficulties in separating synthetic from emergent data for AI training, and these companies' own promise of introducing competent watermarking technology to Ai-produced content, we'd expect them to be craning their necks.

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Francisco Pires is a freelance news writer for Tom's Hardware with a soft side for quantum computing.

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