Privacy-Invading Watermarks: Just Say No

from the foot-shooting-bad dept

A while back I had a piece at Ars Technica critiquing a study from the Center for Democracy and Technology on the use of “personalized” watermarks. I suggested that CDT should have explicitly noted that such technologies are a privacy hazard, and their only known use — as an “anti-piracy” tool — is counterproductive because it affects only paying customers, not people who get music illegally in the first place. CDT’s David Sohn was kind enough to respond to my criticism last week. Sohn concedes that the best way to safeguard users’ privacy is not to use personalized watermarks at all. He also acknowledges that fighting copyright infringement is the only known use for the technology; he speculates that additional uses might be found in the future, but he doesn’t give a specific example.

Sohn’s key point is that “watermarking may have some advantages over other technologies from a consumer perspective.” Specifically, individualized watermarking isn’t as bad as full-blown DRM, or putting unencrypted identification information in file headers. It’s certainly true that the major labels have technological options that are even worse than personalized watermarks, but that’s hardly an argument in favor of using the watermarks. Personalized watermarks punish paying customers less egregiously than DRM does, but they still make music less valuable by exposing customers to potential legal liability that wouldn’t exist if they got music from other sources. And making your product less valuable is a bad business strategy.

Indeed, Sohn’s argument strikes me as missing the forest for the trees. If someone asks you to write a report about the best way to shoot oneself in the foot, the first thing the report should say is don’t shoot yourself in the foot. If the reader isn’t persuaded by that section, I suppose it doesn’t hurt to have a follow up section about the ways to minimize the foot-shooting damage: use small-caliber bullets, aim for the edge of the foot rather than the middle, have medical personnel close by. But a report that skips straight to the “how to” section is doing its readers a disservice. Similarly, the message music and movie publishers most need to hear is that individualized watermarks are bad for their bottom line because they only punish paying customers. Perhaps Sohn is right that most of them won’t listen; if so, there’s nothing wrong with also discussing ways to avoid a privacy fiasco. But CDT’s report didn’t even try to dissuade companies from using technologies in the first place, and I think that’s a major missed opportunity.

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Comments on “Privacy-Invading Watermarks: Just Say No”

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some old guy says:

Totally not convinced

You have yet to actually state a reason why watermarks are bad. If said watermark does not contain personal information, then I see no reason to not use it.

This potential liability you speak of… that’s bullshit. I am 100% against DRM, because it adds artificial restrictions. This is making the content less useful to the consumer, which makes it less desirable. Not to mention the DRM platforms themselves are an incredible invasion of privacy.

But watermarking files? I don’t see the problem here.

R. McCrea says:

Nice, Tim

This article is very well written, Tim Lee. I hadn’t noticed you before. Sohn’s prior response to this reads as lip-flapping. I know when I’m listening to a salesman.

I don’t care about the issue, because the majority of companies are stupid — industry standards, I guess, are essentially subject to democracy, and suffer such consequences. I can’t change that, and I don’t think I’d want to. Such behavior should give sensibility some opportunity to succeed overwhelmingly. (Spoils to the victor, not the herd.) Such a victory may not be likely in this specific matter, but there’s always hope. I do “say no” so often that I’m surprised I own anything. Brothers don’t care though, so I always do my best to reward the few that do act “more practically” in this case. [Um, that was a loose reference to Big Brother]

Just wanted to say reading this was pleasurable. Thanks for the extra effort.

Anonymous Coward says:

watermaks can be usefull

but not as cover for the consumer market but more for internal use purpose: watermark screening releases for evaluation, music sent to dj’s for promo’s etc, so it can cover spillage there, but to use-it for big sales as a consumer anti-copy tool is little over-done, if i have a music cd and forget-it at a friend who makes copy, shares, what ever, i get to be the guilty one… just because i bought the tracks, no thanks, better download a free version…

Wolferz (profile) says:

I must be missing something.

How is personalized watermarks really that different from say… a paypal account? Using your paypal means paypal could track online purchases. Also, to use your paypal you have to give away your email address, thus opening yourself up to spam.

Now there are obvious differences of course but how is it different in regard to privacy because from where I’m am sitting it looks like a paypal account actually does a worse job of invading your privacy.

Lets start with the most significant privacy issue: tracking by the provider of user’s usage. In the case of paypal, anything you use it for it instantly and automatically recorded by paypal’s servers. Who you made the purchase with and how much you paid them as well as your address and other personal info is stored with it. Paypal could easily mine their own databases for marketing info and, with a little guess work, even figure out what the purchases are.

On the other hand the suggested serial number system (which I might add was something I mentioned in a comment to one of Mike’s posts probably 6 months or more ago) is not in any way trackable unless you install software on every device you use it on, your computer is inspected for such watermarked content, or you give such files away. If I was required to install software to track the usage of such files then yes I can see an issue… albeit a small one compared to other concerns such would raise. Unlike paypal, the only time you would likely have to worry about losing privacy as a result of watermarked content is when you have already lost privacy at the hands of a court order allowing the RIAA and it’s cronies to look through your computer or when you actually do commit piracy by distributing such files.

Then there is the issue of what happens if some one gets access to your files. Lets start with paypal for this. Paypal is different in this respect in that it actively requires you to give away the “identifier” for you account. In fact it requires you to give away your email address. This opens you up to spam. It is worth noting however that this in and of itself does not create a major privacy concern because the people with such info will still need your password.

Watermarked content is, once again, better still from a privacy stand point. There is no need to give out the serial from the watermark… thus reducing exposure. If the serial number becomes available it can do you no harm on it’s own (other than being used to frame you for piracy and if we wanna go there then it’s tinfoil hat time). Based on the implementation suggested here the serial number could not be used to access your personal info without some other special access… in this case access to the database containing your information. Is it possible for such a database to be hacked? yes… but the same can be said for Paypal’s database.

POINT: Yes it would do more to protect privacy if the files were not watermarked. It would also be easier to not get in a car accident if you don’t ever get into a car. In the case of watermarked content files using serial numbers and a closed-access database the risk to ones privacy is significantly less that by say… using paypal… or ebay… or newegg. If you look at it in the context of how severely your privacy is being threatened by these watermarks when compared to other day to day activities the answer inevitably ends up being: not really. I threaten my privacy more just by sending an email, thus giving out my email address as part of the process, which could then be used (with the password) to gain access to my email, which could then be used to gain access to my financial information and track my spending habits as well as pinpointing things like where I live and what car I drive.

And it is a given that the content industries are going to do SOMETHING to protect their media. The morality of that is itself an entirely separate issue. However, of the options presented so far watermarking files is by far the least harmful to users and while retaining the required level of protection to the content producers. Would it be better if there was no protection on the files? Of course it would. Is it, however, necessary to take it that far? No, not really.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: I must be missing something.

OK, here are the issues:

1. The privacy issue is this: if a watermarked file can be traced back to you, then it can be done so by anyone – not just the company who put the watermark on there. Once the code is cracked, anyone can trace your music habits, and that includes competitors who track your movements through and try to leverage that data to spam you.

2. No watermark is perfect, and most can be altered. This means that a watermark can be misread (especially if the file is partially corrupted) or a file can be edited to make it look like it came from you. they are also unreversible – that is, if your iPod is stolen and someone uploads your collection to P2P, they will have your watermark on them.

3. That opens up dangerous possibilities. the reason for watermarking is clearly to avoid the problems associated with current anti-piracy techniques. At the moment, the RIAA needs to prove you are actually sharing files – something they have been woefully inept at proving with any of their cases so far. Now, to finger you they only need to see a file with your watermark online to try to prosecute you. the courts will be crowded with lawsuits against largely innocent people, while the real pirates simply avoid the watermarked or remove them altogether.

Maybe Paypal do have a worse record of keeping your records private, but you can opt into Paypal or out again at any time. If you join Paypal, it’s for a reason (usually to buy things from eBay). This, on the other hand, is yet another privacy breach waiting to happen, simply for you to continue to buy music. That’s unacceptable.

“And it is a given that the content industries are going to do SOMETHING to protect their media”

But, why? That’s the point. As I’ve stated here in these comments before, I buy more music right now than I ever have before. That’s mostly because of my memberships to several sites that offer DRM-free, unwatermarked MP3s. I have never bought a DRM-infected track, and I would never knowingly buy a watermarked track. So why “protect” the content? Why not just improve the way they sell the damn things?

Wolferz says:

Re: Re: I must be missing something.

“Why not just improve the way they sell the damn things?”

Because the RIAA is over flowing with pompous idiots. I never said they were right in what they were doing… just that they were going to do something no matter what.

That said you make some good points and some bad ones.

For starters if some one steals your ipod could you be blamed for the uploaded files? Absolutely. That said if some one steals a 300$ piece of equipment from me I’m going to report it stolen, which if the files are uploaded later would make it really hard for the RIAA to build a case against me. CD’s made with watermarked music on the other hand could become an issue. So could the cheaper mp3 players that can replaced with pocket change. I totally agree. I also totally agree that the RIAA’s tactics are in general rather crappy.

That said there are some issues here. The whole point of this is that watermarked files would not be traceable back to me without access to the database. It would be no more traceable to me by Joe the con artist than my email address… in fact with the way most people use emails with their name in them it would be even less traceable. A serial number can not be identified to you unless they have access to the database to look up the serial number or you have made some of your files available in some way that they are easily identified as yours (uploading them to a website when they are identified as uploaded by you and your email is visible for example).

As for tracing music habits, regardless of whether they know it is my music, assumes I am making the music I paid for available publicly. This is piracy, whether it should be or not, it currently is. Otherwise no one will see these files or have any idea what I am doing with them unless they are intentionally invading my privacy with spyware or spyware like additions to my music players or worse coming into my home and bugging my equipment.

There might be exceptions, such as services like… but no one is forcing you to upload the files. If you’re worried about the privacy concerns you don’t have to. Would it be nicer if you didn’t have to worry about your privacy when using such services? Absolutely. Till that is actually a reliable option though I think watermarked files to be a reasonable alternative.

As for faking watermarks, again were talking some one trying to frame you for piracy… If I’m gonna frame some one for something it’s gonna be a lot worse than piracy. But I might as well entertain the notion while I’m here *dons his tinfoil hat*. First off each file should work using two keys to create the final serial. One is an md5 sum of the unaltered file (stored on your account when you placed the purchase) and the other a key specific to you (also stored on your account). Thus if some one gets a serial form a single file they can only frame you for that file. If they apply the serial from Baby Got Back to Dust in the Wind I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t hurt you.

Along the same vein… if the watermark is corrupted bad enough for the serial to be altered but still (incorrectly) readable, which I might add is not very good odds, the end result would likely be a serial that, while it might match a serial for a song on your account, the song it actually is when the file is played and the song it supposed to be according to your account would be EXTREMELY unlikely to match up. We’re talking getting stuck by lighting 15 times in ten minutes and living through it unscathed odds right there.

The biggest risk here, as said before, is that your files get uploaded to the internet illegally by some one else… but bear with me on that.

I’m gonna come back to #3.

Paypal lets you opt in or out, yes, but it doesn’t change that they already have your records after you leave their service. It’s not like if you stop using them the records disappear. And yet, people aren’t worried about paypal or any of the hundreds of other companies out there. See paypal was just an example. Name any company out there that requires any kind of membership and you have an instant issue with some one having records on you. Yet you don’t see poeple too worried about it. Why? Because if their information is abused in any way that causes them monetary damage they can sue the bastards, and paypal knows it. So does ebay and sam’s club and verizon and comcast. They don’t do it cause they are in the business of making money and pissing off customers till class action lawsuits start flying is not profitable.

Minor abuses of information are pretty common too. They range from signing up for hotmail only to have hotmail sign you up for more spam mail that you can possibly sift through in a days time to companies like sams club signing former members up for spam to arrive in their mail box. It pisses people off and rightly so… but when you translate this to the issue of watermarked files it becomes moot. Watermarked files doesn’t mean a breach of your privacy. For that you need to purchase it form a company underhanded enough to do that. Those companies can do that with or without watermarked files. And just as you can “opt out” of using paypal you can “opt out” of buying your music from a company that sells your info to the highest bidder.

Finally #3. And this is where I get all theoretical but bear with me. Ask you self why people pirate music. The obvious answer is because it’s free. But is that really it? I could get free music before the internet too. So if that hasn’t changed what did? Easy: convenience. Half the people who downloaded music from napster didn’t even realize it was illegal. They didn’t do it use it just cause it was free ether. Most liked being able to get just the song they wanted, even the exact version they wanted, and build that together with other specific songs into a mix cd of their own choosing. Convenience is why file-sharing style piracy continues to flourish, not the price.

What does watermarked downloads offer? All the convenience for a buck or two per song plus the piece of mind that you don’t have to hide it or risk getting sued. (and minus the piece of mind regarding privacy… something most people don’t really care about and something I still fail to see as being an issue without other outside factors coming into play)

Yes pirate will still be able to remove them… but who will they upload them to? File sharing requires numbers. You need lots and lots of people on your p2p network or the people who come there can’t find what they want and if they do it will take too long to download. Why are people going to come there when they can get the same thing, and possibly a higher quality, with less risk (virus’, fake files, getting sued) just as easily or more easily without installing special software. etc. etc.

Yes there are those who actually do go there to save money. As long as there is no service providing the music to dl for free or extremely cheep p2p will survive, but it will be diminished if another service or set of services can be as convenient or more so than p2p.

This will not increase the number of cases the RIAA is bringing to court because it will actually reduce piracy. It will also significantly reduce the number of falsely accused people because, as I think I have pointed out fairly reasonably, the only likely chance for your serials to end up online is if you put the files there yourself or they were put there by some one who physically stole from you.

Don’t get me wrong, I think the RIAA needs to have it’s butt kicked two ways from Tuesday… but for now this is what things are. And the privacy threat from such watermarks is STILL lower than the privacy threat from emailing people. Email adress’ can be spoofed, allowing you to get people fired, to gain access to financial info, etc. All you need is to know the persons email address which, in case you didn’t notice, you send out every time you send an email. Not only that but it’s easier to do. If I’m gonna start worrying about these watermarks then I might as well get myself a cabin in the middle of no where and become a hermit.

Andrew D. Todd (user link) says:

Sidenote: Classical Music

I don’t listen to pop music myself. When I listen to music, it’s classical, and mostly from the local National Public Radio station. However, on inquiry, I found that the classical musicians have taken to MIDI like a duck to water. The vast majority of major compositions are pre-1923, and copyright in them does not arise. As for the performances, MIDI sequencing is something like a hundred times as productive as playing in a large ensemble of thirty or forty musicians. For purposes of making a recording of a symphony, the orchestra has to play the piece over and over until they get through without any of the performers making a mistake. A sequencer program works more or less like a word processor, and one person can steadily tinker with the sound until he gets it right. Proprietary sequencer programs are available for as little as $35, and while open-source would of course be preferable, it is not very urgent. The result is that private individuals are undertaking projects which were previously the monopoly of tax-supported national symphony orchestras. Large quantities of classical MIDI are being published on the internet, perfectly legally. The pattern seems to be that a young composer will sequence a large quantity of Beethoven, Bach, Mozart, etc., and put it up on a website together with some of his own compositions. MIDI files are not very large, so he doesn’t have to monkey with things like BitTorrent.

Here are some people who have set themselves up as the librarians of MIDI on the internet: (Probably one of the most comprehensive collections).

Here is the site of a retired British Army bandmaster (Royal Engineers), who seems to have a fairly encyclopedic command of march music, as one would expect:

And at the other end of the scale, a couple of music students:

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