CDT: Consider Privacy When Designing Watermarks

by , May 29, 2008, 3:46 PM
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Companies developing digital watermarking should put people's privacy interests front and center when designing applications, the Center for Democracy & Technology is urging today.

"Privacy questions should not be raised as an afterthought only at the end of the process or when privacy advocates have started to raise concerns," the CDT says in its new document, "Privacy Principles for Digital Watermarking."

Digital rights groups like the CDT worry that watermarks in music, movies and media files can potentially interfere with people's ability to keep their taste in entertainment to themselves. "Particular media usage choices could be sensitive if exposed, or could contribute to the creation of profiles of individuals' overall media purchase and consumption habits, which might be used in ways that the individuals do not expect or understand," the CDT writes.

For media companies, however, digital watermarking is seen as one way to stem piracy. After all, if every piece of content that people download off the Web contains information that could potentially identify the purchaser, and that information remains even when files are copied, then it's easier to point fingers when tracks or movies appear on Kazaa.

While the CDT isn't advocating an end to watermarking, it's asking companies to proceed with caution. Among other suggestions, the CDT urges that companies refrain from embedding identifying information directly in the watermarks and that companies notify consumers about watermarks and their potential impact on privacy.

Even if watermarking companies adopt these precautions, it seems inevitable that the shift to digital media will entail some loss of privacy. Whether following these principles will limit that loss is open to debate -- but the CDT certainly is right to at least remind everyone about what's at stake.

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