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Steg.AI puts deep learning on the job in a clever evolution of watermarking on August 1, 2023 at 11:01 am

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Watermarking an image to mark is one’s own is something that has value across countless domains, but these days it’s more difficult than just adding a logo in the corner. Steg.AI lets creators embed a nearly invisible watermark using deep learning, defying the usual “resize and resave” countermeasures.

Ownership of digital assets has had a complex few years, what with NFTs and AI generation shaking up what was a fairly low-intensity field before. If you really need to prove the provenance of a piece of media, there have been ways of encoding that data into images or audio, but these tend to be easily defeated by trivial changes like saving the PNG as a JPEG. More robust watermarks tend to be visible or audible, like a plainly visible pattern or code on the image.

An invisible watermark that can easily be applied, just as easily detected, and which is robust against transformation and re-encoding is something many a creator would take advantage of. IP theft, whether intentional or accidental, is rife online and the ability to say “look, I can prove I made this” — or that an AI made it — is increasingly vital.

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Steg.AI has been working on a deep learning approach to this problem for years, as evidenced by this 2019 CVPR paper and the receipt of both Phase I and II SBIR government grants. Co-founders (and co-authors) Eric Wengrowski and Kristin Dana worked for years before that in academic research; Dana was Wengrowski’s PhD advisor.

While Wengrowski noted that though they have made numerous advances since 2019, the paper does show the general shape of their approach.

“Imagine a generative AI company creates an image and Steg watermarks it before delivering it to the end user,” he wrote in an email to TechCrunch. “The end user might post the AI-generated image on social media. Copies of the deployed image will still contain the Steg.AI watermark, even if the image is resized, compressed, screenshotted, or has its traditional metadata deleted. Steg.AI watermarks are so robust that they can be scanned from an electronic display or printout using an iPhone camera.”

Although they understandably did not want to provide the exact details of the process, it works more or less like this: instead of having a static watermark that must be awkwardly layered over a piece of media, the company has a matched pair of machine learning models that customize the watermark to the image. The encoding algorithm identifies the best places to modify the image in such a way that people won’t perceive it, but that the decoding algorithm can pick out easily — since it uses the same process, it knows where to look.

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The company described it as a bit like an invisible and largely immutable QR code, but would not say how much data can actually be embedded in a piece of media. If it really is anything like a QR code, it can have a kilobyte or three, which doesn’t sound like a lot, but is enough for a URL, hash, and other plaintext data. Multiple-page documents or frames in a video could have unique codes, multiplying this amount. But this is just my speculation.

Steg.AI provided multiple images with watermarks for me to inspect, some of which you can see embedded here. I was also provided (and asked not to share) the matching pre-watermark images; while on close inspection some perturbations were visible, if I didn’t know to look for them I likely would have missed them, or written them off as ordinary JPEG artifacts.

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Yes, this one is watermarked.

Here’s another, of Hokusai’s most famous work:

Image Credits: Hokusai / The Art Institute of Chicago

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You can imagine how such a subtle mark might be useful for a stock photography provider, a creator posting their images on Instagram, a movie studio distributing pre-release copies of a feature, or a company looking to mark its confidential documents. And these are all use cases Steg.AI is looking at.

It wasn’t a home run from the start. Early on, after talking with potential customers, “we realized that a lot of our initial product ideas were bad,” recalled Wengrowski. But they found that robustness, a key differentiator of their approach, was definitely valuable, and since then have found traction among “companies where there is strong consumer appetite for leaked information,” such as consumer electronics brands.

“We’ve really been surprised by the breath of customers who see deep value in our products,” he wrote. Their approach is to provide enterprise-level SaaS integrations, for instance with a digital asset management platform — that way no one has to say watermark that before sending it out; all media is marked and tracked as part of the normal handling process.

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Concept illustration of a Steg.AI app verifying an image.

An image could be traced back to its source, and changes made along the way could conceivably be detected as well. Or alternatively, the app or API could provide a confidence level that the image has not been manipulated — something many an editorial photography manager would appreciate.

This type of thing has the potential to become an industry standard — both because they want it and because it may in the future be required. AI companies just recently agreed to pursue research around watermarking AI content, and something like this would be a useful stopgap while a deeper method of detecting generated media is considered.

Steg.AI has gotten this far with NSF grants and angel investment totaling $1.2 million, but just announced a $5 million A round led by Paladin Capital Group, with participation from Washington Square Angels, the NYU Innovation Venture Fund, and angel investors, Alexander Lavin, Eli Adler, Brian Early and Chen-Ping Yu.

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​ Watermarking an image to mark is one’s own is something that has value across countless domains, but these days it’s more difficult than just adding a logo in the corner. Steg.AI lets creators embed a nearly invisible watermark using deep learning, defying the usual “resize and resave” countermeasures. Ownership of digital assets has had a 

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Business

TikTok Sues US Gov’t

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TikTok is suing the US government to stop the enforcement of a bill that seeks to force the app’s Chinese owner to sell the app or face a ban. The lawsuit argues that the bill violates constitutional protections of free speech and is an “unprecedented violation” of the First Amendment.

Visit of Shou Zi Chew, CEO of TikTok, to the European Commission

Background

  • The bill, the Protecting Americans from Foreign Adversary Controlled Applications Act, was passed last month.
  • The lawsuit was filed in the US Circuit Court of Appeals for Washington, DC.
  • TikTok argues that the bill is a permanent, nationwide ban on a single speech platform and restricts free speech without sufficient reason.

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Government Response

  • The Department of Justice has not commented on the lawsuit.
  • A White House spokesperson directed a request for comment to the Justice Department.
  • John Moolenaar, chairman of the House Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party, stated that TikTok poses a grave risk to national security and the American people.

Legal Proceedings

  • The lawsuit is expected to add to an already lengthy timeline for a potential ban or sale of the app.
  • ByteDance, TikTok’s Chinese owner, already had over a year to make a move, and legal proceedings will pause the timeline, meaning it could be years before a ban goes into effect.

TikTok’s Efforts

  • TikTok has made efforts to assure the public and US officials that it takes data security seriously.
  • In 2022, the company started “Project Texas,” a move meant to provide data security and transparency around the information the app collects about US users.

Conclusion

  • The lawsuit states that Congress has not offered any evidence suggesting that TikTok poses data security risks or foreign propaganda spread that could justify the law.
  • TikTok claims the law violates the right to due process under the Fifth Amendment and is an unconstitutional bill of attainder.

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Universal Music Group & TikTok Partner in New Licensing Agreement

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In a monumental move, Universal Music Group (UMG) and TikTok have announced a pioneering licensing agreement that will transform the music landscape. This historic deal unites UMG’s vast music catalog with TikTok’s massive user base, unlocking unprecedented opportunities for artists, songwriters, and fans worldwide.

Visit of Shou Zi Chew, CEO of TikTok, to the European Commission

A New Era for Music Consumption and Monetization

The agreement marks a significant milestone in the UMG-TikTok relationship, allowing users to once again create videos featuring music from global superstars and emerging talent. The deal also paves the way for innovative monetization opportunities, with TikTok investing in artist-centric tools and campaigns to support UMG artists across genres and territories globally.
A Shared Commitment to Valuing Music and Creativity
Sir Lucian Grainge, Chairman and CEO of UMG, and Shou Chew, CEO of TikTok, hailed the agreement as a “new chapter” in their partnership, built on a shared commitment to promoting the value of music, human artistry, and the welfare of the creative community.

Sir Lucian Grainge, Chairman and CEO of UMG on the left of the photo.

Addressing Generative AI Concerns
The deal also tackles concerns around generative AI, with TikTok committing to work with UMG to ensure that AI development in the music industry protects human creativity and the economics that flow to artists and songwriters.
Deeper Connections and Responsible AI Development
Ole Obermann, TikTok’s Global Head of Music Business Development, emphasized that the agreement will “create deeper connections between artists, creators, and fans” and ensure that AI tools are developed responsibly to enable a new era of musical creativity and fan engagement.
Transformational Partnerships and Advancements
Michael Nash, Chief Digital Officer and EVP of UMG, welcomed the renewed relationship with TikTok, citing the potential for “transformational partnerships” and “significant advancements” in commercial and marketing opportunities, as well as protections for UMG’s industry-leading roster.
A Win for the Music Industry
This groundbreakingagreement is a major victory for the music industry, which has long sought to strike a balance between promoting artistic creativity and protecting the rights of artists and songwriters in the digital age. With UMG and TikTok working together, the possibilities for innovation and growth are endless, and fans can look forward to enjoying music from their favorite artists in new and exciting ways.
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House of Lords to Host Nigerian Innovators

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Clean Cyclers, alongside Sustainability Unscripted and other sustainability partners, is gearing up to host the 3rd Edition of the Global Sustainability Summit in the United Kingdom. Scheduled for March 28 – 29, 2024, at the prestigious House of Lords in the Palace of Westminster, the summit aims to raise awareness, promote collaboration across disciplines, tackle global challenges with local solutions, and advocate for social equity.

Canon Otto, the organizer and founder of Clean Cyclers, emphasized the summit’s commitment to inclusivity, prioritizing climate action, environmental stewardship, and identifying policy pathways for sustainable development. Under the theme “Advancing Sustainability, a Journey Towards a Greener Future,” the summit will gather leading visionaries, experts, innovators, and change-makers from global corporations, organizations, and government agencies to brainstorm strategies for adopting the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals.

Sustainability Businessman Otton Canon

The summit will feature panel sessions addressing urgent topics such as climate action, circular economy, renewable energy revolution, sustainable cities, biodiversity conservation, green finance, sustainable agriculture, and climate justice. Additionally, it will recognize and celebrate companies, governments, organizations, and individuals demonstrating commitment to sustainability through practical initiatives and the realization of short-term objectives and long-term goals.

In a statement, the organizers highlighted the broad spectrum of sustainability practices, policies, and innovations aimed at mitigating climate change, conserving biodiversity, protecting natural resources, and promoting social equity. The theme “Advancing Sustainability” underscores the need for a shift from short-term exploitative approaches to long-term regenerative ones, reflecting humanity’s ability to learn, adapt, and innovate.

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The summit aims to foster knowledge exchange, collaboration, and actionable solutions over two days of physical gathering at the House of Parliament in London. Participants will explore diverse perspectives, share knowledge, and work together to shape strategies that drive meaningful change and accelerate progress towards a sustainable future.

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