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What is Provenance, and why we need it?

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What is Provenance, and why we need it?

Before diving into the digital media provenance discussion, it is important to understand what provenance means. Provenance is defined as the place of origin or the earliest known history of something. Typically used to describe artifacts, why are we interested in associating provenance with non-tangible digital entities?

While the exact date for when we became interested in digital provenance is not known, we can attribute the origins of digital provenance to when digital media became “valuable”. In the early days of the web, digital media held little to no value serving as a means of enhancing basic webpages. As the internet matured and grew into a viable sector, digital assets formed the foundation for monetization and information delivery. 

Traditional Monetization

The internet provides a platform for artists, photographers, videographers, and other creatives to exhibit their creations to a diverse audience. While this allows for direct sale, opportunities and jobs in the form of commissions and collaborations, many of the platforms were built without careful consideration of provenance resulting in uncredited use and missed monetization opportunities for the creators the platforms are serving.

A notable example of this is the un-permissioned use and proliferation of Canadian photographer Cath Simard’s Hawaii Road photo. Within minutes of being shared online, the photo found itself copied and shared on multiple social media platforms. Simard herself saw her photo reduced to a common stock photo and unable to reap the monetary benefits of her work.

Cases like Simard’s are numerous and highlight the need to establish credit and acceptable usage for digital media. Digital media provenance represents a tangible way to claim creatorship and license for digitally created images and photos.

Information Delivery

The accessibility of the web has changed the landscape of information sharing allowing users to be a simple search away from the latest news. This has the positive effect of having more informed populations, however has the negative effect of people being at the mercy of information quality. Some of these negative effects include misinformation and poor decision making.

Photos and videos play a central role in delivering information on the web. In recent years,  there have been instances where shared photos and video footage with incorrect location and timestamps misled the public into believing certain events happened, invoking strong responses.

During the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy in 2012, a widely circulated image purported to show the Statue of Liberty engulfed by storm surges. The image quickly went viral on social media platforms, garnering thousands of shares and eliciting strong reactions from viewers concerned about the impact of the storm. However, it was later revealed that the image was not of Hurricane Sandy but rather a photoshopped depiction created years earlier as part of a climate change awareness campaign. Despite efforts to debunk the image, it continued to circulate widely, perpetuating misinformation about the extent of the storm's damage and fueling public anxiety. This incident underscores the importance of accurate digital provenance in verifying the authenticity of images shared online, especially during times of crisis when reliable information is crucial for public safety and decision-making.

Provenance Urgency in the face of Generative AI

The rapid advancement of generative AI raises the urgency of provenance. Generative AI enables the creation of highly realistic and convincing digital content (images and videos) that are often indistinguishable from human-produced content in a fraction of the time. With how democratized generative AI tools and platforms are, it becomes increasingly difficult to establish true origins and authorship of digital assets. It also takes the misinformation issues that currently exist on the web today and exacerbates them by making it more easy to create generated AI images and proliferate sensationalized images and videos.

The need for methods to trace and verify digital content has reached unprecedented levels, and while provenance was previously overlooked, the disruptive emergence of generative AI technology has catalyzed greater momentum in the field of provenance than ever before.

Provenance Standards

Despite digital media provenance being in its early stages, there are a number of promising standards that not only help to establish content ownership and copyright but also ensure the authenticity and integrity of the digital content.

The International Press Telecommunications Council (IPTC) : Instrumental in developing metadata standards for describing news content and enabling efficient exchange of digital news across platforms and systems.

Coalition for Content Provenance and Authenticity (C2PA) : Collaborative initiative among technology and media companies that focus on combatting disinformation and enhancing digital media by developing common protocols and tools for tracking the origin and history of digital content.

ERC-7053 : Blockchain standard for creating interoperable indexing strategy designed to enhance the organization and retrieval of digital media information (commit events) across smart contracts and EVM-compatible blockchains through the use of Decentralized Content Identifiers. 

Provenance Tools and Industry Adoption

While the integration of provenance is not flashy, the challenge of integrating digital media provenance in an effective manner to ensure content integrity and authenticity cannot be understated. These are some of the key players who have taken up the challenge:

Truepic simplifies the verification process with technology that confirms the authenticity of photos and videos when they are captured, applying C2PA standard to the captured contents.

OpenOrigins offers a straightforward system that tracks the origin and maintains the authenticity of digital content from creation to consumption, helping creators manage their work effectively.

Numbers Protocol utilizes blockchain technology to create traceable and immutable records of digital media. Combining both C2PA standards and immutable nature of the blockchain technology, the solutions aim to build a digital media network that supports content authenticity and combats misinformation.

Major industry players such as Google, OpenAI, Meta, and Adobe are increasingly embracing these technologies to enhance content integrity through the integration of provenance. This widespread adoption shows the growing recognition of the importance of provenance in maintaining the reliability and security of digital media.

Why Provenance Matters

The significance of provenance cannot be overlooked. By integrating provenance mechanisms into digital media, we can preserve the authenticity of content, safeguard the rights of creators, and uphold the reliability of information consumed by the public. Now more than ever, It is imperative that the authenticity and value of human-created content are preserved amidst the rapid advancement of AI technologies underscoring the urgency of provenance tools integration and effective AI regulation to maintain the authenticity and trustworthiness of our digital interactions. Our dedication lies in advocating for these measures to preserve the internet as a dependable and ethical environment.

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