An interview with Jonathan Friend

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Jonathan Friend, Friend MTS CEO
Jonathan Friend, CEO Friend MTS

Piracy Monitor’s Steve Hawley catches up with Jonathan Friend, the CEO of the anti-piracy technology company Friend MTS, which has just updated its flagship product.  We also welcome Friend MTS as a new Sponsor of Piracy Monitor and thank them for their support.

Steve: Hello Jonathan.  Thanks for talking with us today.  Friend MTS has just launched the 4th Generation of its ASiD watermarking solution. What has changed, and what can platforms expect with these enhanced watermarking and monitoring solutions?

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Jonathan: As with any security system, there is a need to evolve over time, and with the rapid pace of development in the video industry, there is a constant need to support new workflows. So, with that, we’ve developed the 4th generation of ASiD. Along with significant enhancements to our existing solutions, ASiD Embedded and ASiD OTT Client-composited, we have added ASiD OTT Edge-switched, a smart server-side A/B variant technique.

There’s a misconception that ASiD is a watermarking technology. In reality it’s an end-to-end solution that incorporates edge components integrated with a core service platform. Some of those edge components operate within the platform’s head-end to generate reference data (fingerprints and more) from the original video, others embed watermarks into video and provide further intelligence about interactions with the security components of a video service. The service platform incorporates our global content discovery platform – collecting massive amounts of video from pirate services around the world every day, sifting, sorting and recognising what it is all automatically – as well as watermark extraction to identify the subscribers responsible for sourcing the content into said platforms.

Today, we’ve integrated watermarking into millions of devices, and based on the outcome of our monitoring for our largest customers, we’re performing millions of extractions per month, providing meaningful results in tackling piracy.

Steve: As Founder and CEO of Friend MTS,  what continues to drive you and the company?

Jonathan: Piracy keeps changing, which means our customers will continue to have a problem protecting their content and revenue unless we innovate and stay a step ahead. It’s crucial to have effective technology ready in advance, rollout new changes and adapt our security solutions based on intelligence amassed from our extensive monitoring of online video piracy. Our goal is not to make headlines but to solve real security problems. In this sense, we consider ourselves a solutions provider as we don’t just license a technology, we provide solutions to the revenue-draining content piracy problem. 

Steve: How does this end-to-end ASiD 4th Generation offering stand out from your competitors?

Jonathan: ASiD has been deployed as a solution for many years now. There are still set-top boxes in the field with the 1st generation that are still delivering results today in identifying the identity of accounts being used to source content into pirate services. Across the generations, we’ve proved robustness to a multitude of real-world attacks aimed at thwarting the ability to extract the payload. As an end-to-end solution, we’re very focused on ASiD’s continuing ability to perform, and indeed to facilitate both embedding and extraction at massive scale. All of this is actually deployed and operational, having performed millions of extractions in total. It’s for this reason that our customers continue to entrust us to protect their most valuable content.

Steve: What are some new enhancements offered with 4th Generation ASiD?

Jonathan: ASiD Embedded now offers accelerated watermark generation in certain devices, especially those without functional FPUs, enabling the retrofitting of enhanced capabilities into even older and lower-specification receivers. Also, there are new optimisations to enable memory- and CPU-efficient watermark parameters for different content types (UHD, HD, linear channels vs on-demand content, etc), which is something our customers have requested to enable new business capabilities such as early-window premium VOD whilst at the same time facilitating ultra-rapid payload extraction for sports content all with a single technology.

ASiD OTT Client-composited has stronger support for cloud PVR, and higher precision of session identification. There’s also a new feature to enable variable per-device watermark parameters for different content and playback types (as with ASiD Embedded), and to enable optimised watermark compositing based on individual client devices’ capabilities. In addition, intelligence feedback has been improved, and a new collaboration mechanism has been added between headend and client to take action on bad actors. 

And, with the addition of ASiD OTT Edge-Switched, we are able to bring about security enhancements and address piracy situations that haven’t been addressed before. 

Steve: Historically, Friend MTS has advocated client-side watermarking. What led you to add this server-side A/B variant watermarking solution?

Jonathan: Friend MTS is not new to sequential watermarking, of which A/B variant is a form. Back at IBC 2014, we were showcasing temporal sequenced video watermarking for streamed video, and had other solutions in the market even before that, so we have extensive expertise in this form of the technology.

ASiD was launched in 2015 as a practical form of watermarking that was easy to deploy into both one-way broadcast set-top boxes and OTT/TVE applications, and has over the years proved extremely performant. As ASiD is an end-to-end solution in exploring new features, we don’t just think about the structure and form of embedding and extracting watermark payloads, but also about how extraction works in real-world content flows that introduce variations to the video (for example the asymmetric cropping that is typical in screencast video) and how those feed into at-scale extraction performance.

Similarly, we need to think about attacks, not just in the visual domain, but in the case of a temporal watermark and the delivery and protection of the sequencing. As a company, we’ve deployed watermark technology to the largest operators with channels showing some of the most popular content in the world, and these challenges are things that we need to carefully consider before releasing new features.

In developing ASiD OTT Edge-switched, we didn’t just develop yet another A/B variant watermarking solution, but we took a step back and considered all of the factors I mentioned, as well as how it would interplay in a mixed-device environment with different forms of ASiD deployed (for example a mixture of one-way broadcast, managed and unmanaged connected devices, and web) to provide complete protection. We thought about practical solutions to problems that would only become apparent when operating at scale, which we can do because of our extensive experience of in-the-field deployment and history of large-scale operation.

Steve: With the effect of the pandemic on the entertainment industry, how has Friend MTS had to adapt its offerings, partnerships?

Jonathan: The pandemic has accelerated trends that were already present. Pirates that have always been looking for ways to break anti-piracy technologies have upped their game with new more sophisticated circumvention techniques to serve the increased demand for premium content online and shifts in consumer viewing habits and theatrical windows. 

As a result, content owners and distributors now require an arsenal of anti-piracy options to ensure all protection gaps are filled and their OTT services are fully protected. Our partner relationships also play a big part in the advancement of our own technologies and in our understanding of ever-changing market demand. By working together with Akamai, Bitmovin and Intertrust, among others, we can ensure stronger protection against piracy throughout the content distribution chain. 

Steve: Friend MTS has developed a concept called ‘Trust Levels’ to help your customers choose the best solution. How does this work and how does it tie-in with 4th Generation ASiD?

Jonathan: ‘Trust Levels’ are guidelines we developed for broadcasters, content owners and service operators when selecting the most appropriate and efficient watermarking technology. The Trust Levels are based on a customer’s perceived trust in the security of the device and delivery method of their content. The 4th Generation of ASiD includes a watermarking solution for each Trust Level across all types of operator-managed, operator-supplied, and third-party clients/devices.

Steve: Why is taking an end-to-end approach with content protection technologies vital when protecting content from theft and ultimately safeguarding revenue? 

Jonathan: Piracy and anti-piracy take many forms, depending on the services and devices involved.  Take, for instance, Direct-to-Consumer (D2C); which is an entirely intangible product. Without a contract, and with potentially untraceable (or difficult to trace) payment methods, it’s harder to uncover identities of bad actors that keep switching accounts to avoid detection.

So in cases like that, we can’t stop at watermarking. Instead, we take a holistic data-driven approach. Based on the extensive piracy intelligence, and active device monitoring generating live metrics, we can adapt the watermark scheme in real time to appropriately counter attacks. In addition, our security investigators keep a constant eye on threats against our customers’ platforms, whether that be against our technology or other components of their platform security, informing our customers that action can be taken to address vulnerabilities.

Lastly, with the integration of our global-scale monitoring, we can piece together how commonly watermarked streams are being distributed throughout the pirate ecosystem to provide investigative intelligence on content sourcing. In the case of certain attacks the extraction process pieces together partial payload information from multiple different pirate streams, enabling faster payload extraction and higher confidence alerting, which simply wouldn’t be possible with discrete and uncoupled files processed for extraction in a just technology product.

Steve: Jonathan, we really appreciate your time with us today.  One last question: while 4th Generation ASiD is a technological approach to finding and fighting piracy, what kinds of non-technical benefits does it provide?

Jonathan: Through our business intelligence solutions, we are able to provide and analyze data to understand the “who” and “what” of content piracy – the pirates and bad actors and what content they consume. Our monitoring of data, user behaviour and pirate reactions has provided our customers with valuable insights leading them to new audiences and untapped revenue sources. We also provide assistance in prosecuting pirates caught by our systems. With our watermarking, we pinpoint the exact subscription accounts used for illegal content redistribution which allows our customers to analyse their data and, in collaboration with Friend MTS, determine who the thief is to prosecute with this evidence. 

Steve: Jonathan, thank you for explaining your new solution to us.  When we publish this interview in Piracy Monitor, we’ll provide a link to further information

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