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The Importance and the Promise of Real-time Watermarking

Dynamic realtime watermarking is an important weapon in the new front against video piracy. We spoke to Gaëtan Le Guelvouit, from VO’s latest industry partner b<>com, about the solution they are jointly developing with us.

Gaetan Le GuelvouitGaëtan Le Guelvouit is the Manager of the Trust & Security Lab at b<>com and he works on security issues related to multimedia content. His main research interest is data hiding (watermarking and steganography). He worked as an Engineer in Computer Science from the Institut National des Sciences Appliquées (INSA), he then joined the INRIA to work on his Ph.D. which he defended in 2003. He also worked at Supélec Paris, Capgemini and Orange Labs as a Research Engineer, where he distinguished himself as a Senior Security Expert.

First off, can you introduce b<>com to us: what is the IRT and what are its main areas of research?

A technology pioneer and provider for companies that want to digitally boost their competitive edge, b<>com addresses sectors such as media production and distribution, digital infrastructures, defense, health care, and Industry 4.0.

Its laboratories bring together talented people from a variety of disciplines and cultures in areas like artificial intelligence, immersive video and audio, content protection, 5G networks, the Internet of Things, and cognitive technologies.

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You are working with VO on a solution for real-time digital watermarking. What are the technical challenges of this?

There is a constant increase in live audio-visual piracy (essentially sports and live events). It’s a huge loss of income for content right owners and distributors. At the same time, we’re experiencing tougher competition acquiring content rights as well as massive investments for content production. Piracy is, more than ever, a significant threat to the value chain. 

To fight this, we face two main technical challenges. First, in order to discourage the audience to illegally consume such streams, we must find and stop illegal streamers within a very short time window, typically within 15 minutes. Second, the watermarking solution must be able to process the video data during its playback, picture after picture, in real time. This is especially challenging with recent UHD contents.  

What is the current status of the project?

The first step of the collaboration was devoted to designing an evolutive watermarking architecture, considering an embedding front-end and an analysis back-end. We decided to start from scratch, to face the challenges of live video processing and provide seamless integration of the solution within popular broadcast architectures. 

The first results where demonstrated at ANGA COM and BroadcastAsia. Our objective is to be product-ready in September for IBC, then immediately enter into field trials.

Why watermarking? What is it about this technology that makes it such a good fit for anti-piracy action?

When digital output’s protection is not efficient anymore, piracy occurs outside of the security perimeter provided by classical content protection, such as DRM and CAS. The only way to track content out of the client’s video terminal is to use the content itself to carry an identifier. This is the purpose of transactional watermarking: the pixels of the video encode the ID of the source. Any streamed content can be tracked back to a compromised terminal or an indelicate subscriber. 

Are there any AI or ML components to the solution?

In general, b<>com is significantly investing in AI for cybersecurity applications. Considering that the core value of our watermarking solution relies on dynamic aspects and is highly evolutive, there is a lot we can do here with AI. It can also be used to improve the detection and identification of piracy sources and their related propagation.

What are the business benefits of dynamic watermarking?

Pirates appreciate stability. It provides them a lot of time for hacking, reverse engineering and trial-and-error strategies. And their hacks maintain efficiency a long time (even years for hardware-based protection such as HDCP). 

We aim to change this situation by using dynamic watermarking algorithms. We will be able to quickly renew and adapt our watermarks; to change them for every live event if needed. A part of the long-term partnership between b<>com and VO will be dedicated to continuously feeding the Anti-Piracy Centre with new algorithms.  

Where do you see the frontiers for both content piracy on the one hand, and the anti-piracy efforts to combat it on the other? How do you think both will evolve over the forthcoming years?

Since content distribution has become significantly online streaming, security updates are easier, so the cat-and-mouse game tends to accelerate. This agility will be a benefit to the anti-piracy actors only if they are able to smoothly renew their protection, without any impact on the honest customer. They must also continuously work on state-of-the-art approaches to supply new strings to their bow. 

There is a lot of cybersecurity expertise at b<>com. How does this expertise help inform the fight against illegal content streaming? Is there any cross-over in terms of either technology or threat?

One example of cross-over is related to cybersecurity paradigms and, moreover, security continuums. As discussed above, threats are changing (streaming) and, more importantly, their nature is also significantly evolving (organized cyber-criminality). Developing solutions in order to fight this shall be reconsidered at the continuum and framework level. Take the example of the so-called NIST framework: Identify, Protect, Detect, Respond, Recover. This is exactly the framework VO adopted for its Anti-Piracy Center. This approach is not only about technology, it’s also about considering the services that can be offered. We’ll be looking at new mechanisms in this continuum, relying on our cybersecurity expertise.

Why work with VO? Why are b<>com and VO such good partners for a project such as this?

The project demonstrates the synergy we built working together. VO provides its market knowledge and its technical expertise in broadcast and content protection, whereas b<>com offers the science and algorithms. We are very proud of the first results, and I believe VO’s employees already see the benefit of the b<>com collaboration.  

This is billed as the start of a long-term partnership. What areas are you investigating with VO further down the line?

There are already a multitude of opportunities, considering AI, 5G, xR for instance. Beyond technology, there are also opportunities in additional markets. For instance, consider the need for data protection in general, with AI. There are many more opportunities than what a single company can investigate while remaining focused on its business, and in parallel invest in organic R&D spending. This is what is at the core of b<>com’s value proposition: look more holistically at opportunities and leverage the investment jointly with other investors. Acquiring skills and knowledge jointly is much faster than doing this alone.

This positive collaboration between b<>com & VO  will continue to evolve, leading to an important and innovative platform.

Andy Stout

Andy Stout is a broadcast and technology journalist, who, over longer than he cares to think about, has written for most of the major publications in the industry. He is fascinated by technology and its evolving impact on society, and enjoys bringing an eclectic viewpoint to the Viaccess-Orca blog. He was awarded a First Class BSc from the Open University and lives with his family in Northern Ireland.