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Secret communication is a process of manipulating a message so that it becomes hidden in a chosen inconspicuous medium of transmission with the goal of preventing parties external to the sender and the intended receiver to know that communication is taking place. It is used as a data security measure in information technology and involves compressing and encrypting messages, followed by embedding into cover or host media with the end product being a stego-media. The escalation of intellectual piracy in recent years underscores the need for effective intellectual property rights protection systems and has fueled the demand for high capacity, secure and stable secret communication techniques.   

An appreciation of the value of secret communication arises from its comparison with other data security methods. Encryption merely prevents confidential information from being deciphered, but since the knowledge that such a message exists or even when an unusually high rate of message transmission is detected is enough to give eavesdroppers precision in their retrieval efforts. Covert communication, especially when used with encryption, further enhances data security, since it makes it difficult to read the message, as well as know that it is being sent in the first place. Therefore, information has a high probability of being transmitted without detection.   

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One method of secret communication is steganography, the art and science of concealing information in multimedia, namely image, audio, video and text. Data is embedded in idle spaces within the media so that the resulting stego-media closely resembles the original one in terms of appearance, file size and other characteristics upon cursory inspection. The goal of steganographic algorithm development is to optimize the capacity of the medium to contain information in a manner that does not show obvious evidence of it or destroy the medium itself. In recent years, the popularity of PDF made it suitable for text hiding needs by embedding messages between characters or words, while a relatively new method is concealing a message not via a cover medium but by generating a spam message.

In today’s commercial environment, the primary utility of covert communication is in protecting copyright ownership. Intellectual property (IP) refers to “the creations, ideas and knowledge generated by the human mind”. All industries create and use intellectual property, which in turn generates employment, increases company gains, and spurs healthy competition. In the U.S., 75 out of 313 industries are highly reliant on IP, which include television, software, motion picture, music, research and development, publishing and information sectors.

Intellectual property protection laws uphold the legal right of the owners, which is accorded to them through patents, trademarks and copyrights, by allowing them the exclusive privilege of and gains in reproducing it for commercial and other purposes. IP laws prevent the unlawful use, copy and sale of IP by entities other than the property’s owner, except in cases of consent by the latter. In 2005, piracy has been estimated to cause a $250-billion shortfall in revenue, and currently leads to the loss of more than 373,000 jobs each year.

In contemporary world, the internet has become a venue for cost-effective commercial ventures. For instance, publishing companies have significantly reduced production costs and increased sales by offering digital versions of their products such as e-books and e-journals. In the same manner, the music and movie industries have enhanced accessibility and the use of their digital products by permitting online purchases. Ironically, the internet has also made it easier for massive intellectual property theft through such means as file sharing and from a legal standpoint, the internet is an arena, where IP law implementation is difficult as it does not have any national boundaries in the first place.              

As IP laws in themselves are not sufficient in deterring theft, a logical measure would be to install IP protection measures within the products themselves. In this context, digital rights management (DRM) technology was developed using steganography in conjunction with watermarking and fingerprinting. Steganography encrypts the data and embeds it into the media. Fingerprinting adds identifying information unique to each copy. Finally, watermarking makes it difficult to alter or delete the embedded data.  

In DRM, copyright information plus, for instance, a serial number are embedded in an image, sound, video or text file and watermarked (Berti, 2009). The use of the digital product then becomes limited to the buyer in several ways. For example, Apple developed Fair Play, a DRM to make sure that music from its store can only be played using the iTunes app and only in iPods and iPhones. Additionally, while the music purchased cannot be played using any other platform, pirated music cannot be played using the Apple platform.

Since embedded information cannot be deleted, copyright and unique information are retained even in illegal duplicates of the lawfully-acquired product. In this manner, it would be possible to trace which copy was used for piracy purposes, and identify its original buyer, in this case the traitor, through digital forensic analysis. DRM steganography, fingerprinting and watermarking optimize the services of internet monitoring sites which use a robot to monitor file sharing websites for copyrighted content. The capacity to track pirated copies and their source is vital especially in cases where revenue losses from piracy are so huge that legal action is seriously considered.

DRM using steganography prevents copying of digital objects by marking them such that the embedded data also serves as a trademark. Conversely, in cases of intellectual property disputes between companies over material, embedded steganographic data also provides proof of who truly owns the IP. However, various ways to bypass DRM protection abound, which has greatly diminished its usefulness, though this serves as a stimulus for further improving the technology’s efficacy. With the variety and rapid changes in platforms, consumers also find that DRM hampers the full use of copyrighted digital objects they have legally acquired which, in a way, encourages the use of illegal copies.

In summary, the adoption of secret communication for commercial purposes, in particular the sale of digital multimedia, is represented by steganography, watermarking and fingerprinting as they are used in DRM. In this setting, secret communication is used to prove IP ownership and prevent infringement. While it is highly effective in fulfilling the former, it only passively addresses the latter as it does not prevent illegal duplication and distribution. Further, IP protection using DRM is deemed anti-consumer because it prevents legitimate consumers from using legally-acquired products within the range of platforms currently available. Though it is clear that secret communication plays an indispensable role in antipiracy efforts, enhancing its current technology is of paramount importance for it to overcome the challenges and become an active tool in this endeavor.

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