The engineers and nerds who still run the Tech Nation generally keep their noses to the grindstone. They're disinclined to ponder the long view when it comes to developing new technology, preparing for the many public-policy issues surrounding the things they create.
And policy and technology collide all the time, from the building of the Interstate Highway to the space program to the Net. Three particular hot points emerge, when it comes to civics and technology: security, privacy and intellectual property. Naturally, there's very little rational public or media discussion of any of them, beyond hysteria about violence, cracking, theft and porn.
Steganography is the means by which two or more parties may communicate using invisible communications -- even the act of communicating is disguised. This sort of Information hiding -- as opposed to traditional cryptography -- could upend conventional wisdom about copyright, intellectual property and control of data online. The very idea of digital information hiding is almost bitterly ironic: The Net is the most open information culture ever, yet encroachments by corporatism and government are spawning an entire movement and discipline devoted to new techniques for hiding rather than opening data.
Some parties already understand the import of this struggle. Several weeks ago, academic SDMI (Secure Digital Music Initiative) researchers canceled a presentation they'd planned at the Fourth Information Hiding Workshop in Pittsburgh. The reason: pressure from the Recording Industry of America (RIAA), concerned that the release of data about advances in watermarking would undermine its long, expensive and still largely unsuccessful efforts to shut down free music on the Net.
Last week, Declan McCullagh of Wired News reported from the conference that Microsoft has developed a prototype system that limits unauthorized music playback by embedding a watermark that remains permanently attached to audio files. (Note: A conventional watermark is a normally invisible pressure mark in expensive paper which can be seen only when the paper is held up to a strong light. Digital watermarks are embedded in computer files as a pattern of bits which appear to be part of the file and are not noticeable to the user. These patterns can be used to detect unauthorized copies.)
During a security panel, reported McCullagh, a Microsoft research scientist demonstrated how the hidden copyright infringement fingerprint is so securely affixed to the audio that it remains intact even if a song is played aloud on speakers in a noisy room, then re-recorded. If the recording industry begins to include watermarks in its song files, Windows would refuse to play copyrighted music that was obtained illegally (as defined by the Digital Millenium Copyright Act, written by corporate lobbyists, enthusiastically passed by a Congress besotted with corporate money, and signed by a pliant President Clinton two years ago).
Every few years, the war over control of information online seems to escalate. Cryptography suddenly became critical when businesses started to buy and build networked computer systems and people began exchanging money online. Viruses and other epidemics gained widespread national attention once substantial numbers of computer users began trading programs. When the Net exploded, manufacturing firewalls became an industry.
Now the digerati are making a lot of noise about collaborative filtering and blocking and discussions systems, from weblogs to blogs to other peer-to-peer systems, but steganography is a vastly more significant development. Information Hiding, driven by the most significant policy issues of the Digital Age -- privacy, copyright protection and state surveillance -- is the battleground. It comes as the stakes rise in the conflict between proprietary and open information systems.
This week, according to the New York Times, Microsoft will unveil a broad campaign to counter the open source and free software movements, arguing that it undermines the intellectual property of nations and businesses. The campaign, says John Markoff in the Times, is part of Microsoft's new effort to raise questions about the limits of innovation in open-source approach, to advance the idea that companies who embrace open source are putting their intellectual property at risk. In this context, as the battle lines around content and property become clear, the role of Information Hiding grows more critical.
During much of its growth, the Net escaped the attention of government and politics. That's hardly the case now. Federal law enforcement agencies want the right to track information online. Businesses are terrified about the rise in free and shared data. In the Corporate Republic, business and government both grasp the essence of copyright, security and privacy issues. The war over free music has, almost from the first, been the aspect of this Information Age conflict most visible to the public, a testing ground for new technologies and applications that bring new threats and spark the reinvention of new protection philosophies and mechanisms.
Corporate lobbyists have successfully advanced the idea -- via an expensive, sophisticated media and political campaign -- that new laws and initiatives (from the SDMI to the Sonny Bono Copyright Act to the Digital Millenium Copyright Act) -- are necessary to protect intellectual property from pirates online. It's not so simple. These laws, some horrific in their impact on free speech and the fluid movements of creative works, primarily protect corporate revenues, not intellectual freedom or the rights of creators and artists.
Hiding information in modern media, sometimes in plain sight, has cropped up in music and DVD battles, especially regarding DeCSS, the program developed to allow the descrambling of DVD movies. (The writers of the program reverse-engineered the CSS scrambling methods that the Motion Picture Association of America uses to prevent DVD's from playing on unlicensed player.)
There's little published material about steganography, and what has been written costs a fortune. Information Hiding: Techniques for Steganography and Digital Watermarking edited by Stefan Katzenbeisse and Fabien A.P. Petitcolas, published by Artech House, costs nearly $100. But for anyone whose future work in the future involves information, privacy, security or copyright, you couldn't spend the money more wisely. Steganography manuals may be essential tools of the hacker nation in the coming years, as they fend off corporate and government regulations and intrusions.
The book provides an authorative overview of steganography and digital watermarking. Steganography, the book explains, studies ways to make communication invisible by hiding secrets in innocuous messages, whereas watermarking originates from the perceived need for copyright protection of digital media.
Until recently, traditional cryptography received much more attention in the tech world, but that's changing quickly. The first academic conference on stenography took place in l996, driven by concern over copyright and the growing corporate panic over the ease of making perfect digital copies of audio, video and other works. Katzenbeisse and Petitcolas have assembled reports that describe the new field of information hiding and its many possible applications, and describes watermarking systems and digital fingerprinting. The book also talks about the increasingly complex legal implications of copyright.
Anyone interested in the future of open media, or in issues related to privacy, copyright or security, will be particularly mesmerized by the chapter "Fingerprinting," written by John-Hyeon Lee. In this context, "fingerprints" are characteristics of an object that tend to distinguish it from similiar objects. The primary application of digital fingerprints is copyright protection. The techniques Lee describes don't prevent users from copying data or works, but they enable owners to track down users distributing them illegally.
Since corporate lobbyists have re-defined what is and isn't legal when it comes to copyright in the 21st Century, this kind of fingerprinting has stunning civil liberties implications. This technology goes well beyond the software programs tracking Web use and pages; it gives governments, lawyers and corporations a way to follow and identify, thus control, almost every kind of digitally transmitted information. Fingerprints can also be used for high speed searching.
"Fingerprinting," writes Lee, "is not designed to reveal the exact relationship between the copyrighted product and the product owner unless he or she violates its legal use. Compared with cryptography, this property may look incomplete and imprecise, but it may appeal to users and markets." It sure will.
Fingerprinting may not be designed to reveal relationships between copyrighted products and owners, but there's no reason it wouldn't be used for that purpose. That seems inevitable given the high priority billion dollar media and entertainment conglomerates have put on enforcing copyright online.
Information hiding arises against a backdrop of growing confusion and confrontation about security and copyright, which has no global standard. In China, intellectual property is owned by the state. In the United States, copyright is being redefined by corporatists to grant businesses total contol over ideas in perpetuity, a perversion of the original American idea, which was to give creators and the public both acess to intellectual property, never intended to fall exclusively and in perpetuity into private hands. How can these legal and technical applicatiions be handled rationally, let alone democratically, when every country that hosts the Net sets different standards for privacy and security?
Different cultures not only have radically different notions about copyright, but view culture itself very differently. What the United States considers pornographic might be perfectly acceptable in saner countries like Holland or Finland. Conversely, what is protected as free speech here isn't protected at all in much of the world.
So Information Hiding becomes politically important, as well as technologically central. Steganographers may ultimately decide whether movements like open source and free software can prosper and grow in the face of well-funded and organized attacks by corporations like Microsoft and industries like the record companies. They may give music lovers a way to defy powerful corporations and retain the right of access to the culture they've experienced freely for years. They may preserve the idea of security against state surveillance, intrusive educational systems, or even the private businesses forever collecting personal data.
It's not a huge stretch to say that steganographers may determine whether the Net -- and much of the data that moves through it -- stays free or not. All the more important to understand what they do.