User:Pedro Sá Couto/Graduate Research Seminar/Proposal Outline 06

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Tactical Watermarks

What do you want to make?

Surveillance, privacy, and anonymous communication tools are not new topics. From movies like 007, where the 5 seconds self-destructing tape is introduced to Mission Impossible's self-destructing videotape. There is a fetichism in the strategy of self-destructive media. As a media researcher concerned with processes of documentation and archiving, aiming to erase all evidence doesn't feel the right way to address anonymous communication.

I will create an online platform to self-publish about surveillance in the realm of publishing. In particular, I will make use of digital watermarks as a means to explore topics such as anonymity, borders, archives, and provenance. I aim to produce an experimental publication that explores the idea of surveillance where the act of digital watermarking will be literally enacted in the platform itself. With each download of the publication, it rewrites itself as a way of reflecting on its users.

Bookcover fake.jpg

Figure 01 — Watermarks applied to a book I digitized

Starting by commenting on analogue libraries where the main intention of watermarks was to leave traces of authentification, marks of quality or even an aesthetic enhancement, I will compare these traces with their contemporary overview of digital watermarks as a way to create liability for the users. While creating this publication/platform I will be able to describe ways of living within and resist a culture of surveillance. It is relevant to understand and explore what is living in a culture of increasing and constant tracking rather than solving the many problems of surveillance.

As a publisher, I always had as my biggest concern how archives are documented and how provenance is displayed. Transposing from physical or digital media is a process where information gets lost very often. Physical properties are hard to translate when it comes to its transformation into a digital file and vice-versa. From an analysis with on how are traces left to make the downloader accountable, I will tweak these tactics into an active part adding provenance to different media.

While challenging centralised distribution channels, and from my role as a researcher, I will experiment on how the process of adding stains can be twisted and revived. Stains are what I will call user patches or marks that are difficult to remove and that do not play an active role in archives. I will explore the process of adding imprints either against a social structure, as a way to obscure previous ones, to create relations and communities, augmenting the sense of solidarity in archives, for aesthetic enhancements, marks of quality, and comment about their power to infiltrate.

How do you plan to make it?

It is pertinent to point out that this research being practice-led already led me to create a more detailed scope for my project. The main focus of my research shifted after developing the hackpacts with André and Michael. While developing these prototypes my interest focused on surveillance in the realm of publishing.

From an interest in the normalization of digital surveillance as a starting point, I developed 6 prototypes during the hackpact. These are python and bash code-based experiments focused on processes such as making visible processes to target individuals, either by their location, IP address, mac address or user name. I also prototyped a script to download papers from JSTOR bypassing the process of leaving imprints added by publishers. Until now, I have created my digital watermarks and a script to append them to pdfs.

I will start my research from traces that I can find within my downloaded published material and physical books. This will continue from news that comment on techniques that have been spotted and articles that address data hiding. My interest starts with understanding what kind of tracking techniques have already been used and spotted, test and document them.

What is your timetable?

September 2019 — July 2020: Testing and documenting the process.
September – October 2019: Framework outline + Research + Prototyping
November 2019: +++ Prototyping
14 November 2019: Deadline project proposal
December 2019: Conceptualize way to turn prototypes into the final project.
9 & 10 December 2019: Trim 4 Assessment
12 December 2019: Deadline thesis first chapter
January – February 2020: Write Thesis + Experimenting and documenting different watermarks + Adjust from the December Assessment feedback
March 2020: Fine-tune writing. Turn prototypes into the final project.
April – June 2020: Finish writing, fine-tune project.
June 2020: Finish the project, Prepare a final presentation.
July 2020: Graduation Show.

Why do you want to make it?

I find it important for my practice to not only engage with the political aspects behind a topic but also how I am personally connected to them. I have always studied in democratic countries, where I had access to news channels. Either being TV channels, decentralized or centralized social media platforms. I had access to journals and centralized academic publishers, but I was not aware of how privileged I am. This raised questions on the issue of censorship and elitism when it comes to free-flow of knowledge.

We always demand more from the digital world and we compromise our identity because digital surveillance is normalized. We agree with all the protocols that monitor us, almost every day we use personal tracking devices like cellphones and smartwatches. We are susceptible to accept new tech, either by convenience or peer pressure. We feel the need to be connected. We don't carry an identity card anymore because it is stored on our smartphones. We must register to access libraries with personal cards and we need these cards to photocopy archived material. A chain of power is created where it is almost mandatory to get digital.

It's motivating the creation of strategies to comment, tackle and reuse technologies of suppression when it comes to publishing.

It is also relevant to understand how important print is used outside the context of book publishers that are focused on bestsellers. There is a need to point out how small-circulation self-published works like zines can address specific communities allowing them to connect, spread their message and how they become objects for communities to gather around. Print gives us an idea of safe and fast distribution. From the beginning of my research, I found it important that these groups become aware that they can be targeted. What technics exist that can spot individuals or groups in publishing? Are we losing agency over who gets to be online published, spread knowledge and produce it?

Who can help you and how?

Prototyping tutors in developing fully working devices to test.
Michael Murtaugh more in specific with previous research in surveillance, more related to computer vision.
XPUB squad.
Amy Suo Wu relating surveillance in publishing with her previous work in Steganography. In her book ‘A Cookbook of Invisible Writing’, she introduces techniques to analog steganography. It has a close relation to surveillance in the realm of publishing, where she publishes her research on secret writing that is hidden in plain sight.
Femke Snelting with her relation to the PZI curriculum. Femke was our guest tutor during the SI9 and is also a member of Constant, a non-profit organization based in Brussels active in the fields of art, media, and technology.
Bodó Balázs is an economist, piracy researcher at the Institute for Information Law (IViR) at the University of Amsterdam, he was invited during our special issue 9 to give a workshop on Shadow Libraries. He is interested in copyrights, piracy and peer-to-peer communities in which I think could give me insight on investigation methods on these topics.
Alessandro Ludovico is a researcher, artist and chief editor of Neural magazine. He is also working with the Neural Archive with more than 1500 publications that have been published by During the last year and a half, I have been working closely with him in the graphic design of Neural and in this last issue releasing at the end of October he is addressing the topic of Surveillance.

Relation to previous practice

During my bachelor's, I was able to experience what is limited access to contemporary books, academic journals, and digital publications. The interest cultivated in the Piet Zwart in the free-flow of information and knowledge makes me more critical of how I used to lead my research and gives me an insight into different examples in "free countries". The interest in digital culture formed during my first year in this context plays a key role in my topic of research. During the SI8 I have researched with data gathered from the decentralized platform,, and explored as an artistic practice.

During the special issue 09, I started my research in the identification of traces that are left in digital books within Shadow libraries. I was interested in researching what security features can be found on digital files as watermarking, user traces, DRMs, etc. This started by looking at different shadow libraries and theorize on their caution for visibility, anonymity, exposure? This had to be put on hold once we decided to divide into groups. Within my group, we developed a workshop called Blurry boundaries. We asked participants to go through the experience of being librarians while converting books into machine-readable files. A process involving tools, time and choices.

Femke colophon.jpg

Figure 02 — Form where the participant would document the steps along the way

In the past, I had also researched the topic of Surveillance and how can narratives be formed around this. The experiments that I had developed were more related to face detection. As an example, in my first hackpact for prototyping, I started by creating a script where I was able to target a face and anonymize it. This code would iterate within the images of a folder and when detecting a face would black it out.

See more : User:Pedro_Sá_Couto/Hackpact#06

In the media design wiki, I have also used an image as a smudge to link me to my personal page more easily. This will not catch the eye of a regular user but I started using it as a personal hack. It can be seen as a glitch but it is an example of a tactical approach to publishing a link within this established platform while staying undercovered.


Figure 03 — Media wiki screenshot, enlarged smudge

Relation to a larger context

Archives compel different formats and different perspectives nowadays. “Most societies place importance on preserving artifacts of their culture and heritage. Without such artifacts, civilization has no memory and no mechanism to learn from its successes and failures. Our culture now produces more and more artifacts in digital form. The Archive’s mission is to help preserve those artifacts and create an Internet library for researchers, historians, and scholars.” Brewster Kahle founder of the Internet Archive in (Ludovico, 2018). Archives hold published physical media but examples as Cryptome which welcomes documents for publication that are prohibited by governments worldwide, in particular material on freedom of expression, privacy, cryptology, dual-use technologies, national security, intelligence, and secret governance (“Cryptome,” n.d.) understand the importance to open spaces to publications outside legal frameworks.

The Archiv der Avantgarden ( ), in Dresden functions as an open archive for material from the most divergent artistic movements of the 20th century avant-garde: transparent and accessible, it serves as a forum for dialogue and discussion. (“Archiv der Avantgarden: About us,” n.d.) Dusan Barok researched within this archive. During the SI9, in The Library is Open publication we interviewed him. He points out that "a digital archive provides access to cultural memory but it tends to lack memory of itself; and while it provides access to the world’s memory, it tends to do so out of nowhere." (Xpub, 2019). In my project, I will comment on what strategies may we develop to deal with problems in digital archives, such as, the time frame of new acquisitions entering an archive and the preservation of a collections time span. Digital archives also disable the historical memory of the physical item and its spatial position within a collection. While acknowledging that a printed document and its digital copy are different, how can we create bridges between them? How can we create a body of evidence to expose these layers that get lost over time?


Amsterdam, U. van (2019) dr. B. (Balázs) Bodó - University of Amsterdam. Available at: (Accessed: 12 October 2019).
Cryptome (n.d.). Available at: (Accessed: 9 November 2019).
Fulton, J.M. and Kibby, M.D. (2017) Millennials and the normalization of surveillance on Facebook. Continuum, 31 (2): 189–199. doi:10.1080/10304312.2016.1265094.
Kember, J.J. and S. (2019) Whose Book is it Anyway? A View From Elsewhere on Publishing, Copyright and Creativity. Open Book Publishers. doi:10.11647/OBP.0159.
Ludovico, Alessandro. (2018) Post-Digital Print, The Mutation of Publishing since 1894. Onomatopee.
M., C. (1916) EX-LIBRIS. Bulletin of the Detroit Museum of Art, 10 (7): 8–12.
McGrath, J.E. (2004) Loving big brother: performance, privacy and surveillance space. 1 online resource (x, 246 pages) vols. London ; Routledge. Available at: (Downloaded: 19 September 2019).
Richter, T., Escher, S., Schönfeld, D., et al. (2018) Forensic Analysis and Anonymisation of Printed Documents. In 14 June 2018. pp. 127–138. doi:10.1145/3206004.3206019.
Velden, D. van der., Metahaven. and Kruk, Vinca. (2015) Black transparency the right to know in the age of mass surveillance. Berlin: Sternberg Press.
Watkins, S. (1990) Chemical Watermarking of Paper. Journal of the American Institute for Conservation, 29 (2): 117–131. doi:10.2307/3179578.
Wu, A.S. and Edwards, C. (2019) A cookbook of invisible writing. Eindhoven: Onomatopee.

From the XPUB PAD