Secure Digital Media? Forgeddaboudit.

Are guys like this trying to get at your digital media when you don't want them to?

Are guys like this trying to get at your digital media when you don’t want them to? Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Like everyone, I do get a little egg on my face sometimes.  One of those times was a few years ago, when a professor called me asking how one could download a YouTube video. I replied, “I’m not sure there’s a way to do that,” and his perturbed response was, “Of COURSE you can! There’s a Firefox plugin that does it, I just can’t remember the name of it!”  Ouch!

Securing Your Video or Audio Media

Nowadays I hear the obverse question on maybe a monthly basis: how can I share media (video or audio) but prevent downloading? The short answer is, you can’t. You can make downloading very, very difficult — for example, you could call your video up via a javascript file that calls an SWF (Shockwave Flash) file which acts as the player, but that simply obfuscates the media a little bit (the term of art is “security by obscurity”). The media is still getting downloaded to the user’s computer, and the user has but to go and find it.

Streaming Video Requires Capturing It

Another way to secure media is to use a streaming server, such that the media isn’t downloaded, only played in real time — in which case the media hoarder’s problem becomes how to capture the video instead of just downloading it.  There are plenty of utilities for doing this, ranging from expensive solutions like Camtasia to freebie solutions like Apple QuickTime (on the Mac) and even a handful of browser plugins.  Not to mention that computer video output could be routed through a DVD recorder, DVR, or some other recording device.  In a pinch, a desperate media hoarder could simply resort to pointing a camera phone at the screen.

The shortest way I’ve heard this principle expressed is, once your media is on a screen you don’t control, you don’t control it anymore!

So, Then, How to Deal with the Problem?

Thus the issue becomes how to deal with this problem that has no rock-solid technical solution.  One way is to not put media “out there” that you wouldn’t want shared under any circumstances.  Another is to only share with individuals you trust; that becomes problematic, perhaps, when the people you are sharing with are a host of students.  Not to say that students are necessarily untrustworthy, but after all, W&M wouldn’t need an Honor Code if everyone acted honorably all the time.

It does occur to me, though, that a statement like “By remaining in this course, you promise on your honor not to share electronic course materials with others” on the syllabus is probably at least as effective and comforting as a defeatable technical attempt at security-by-obscurity.

About John Drummond

John Drummond is the Academic Technology Manager at the College of William & Mary. Originally from Mathews County, VA, John graduated from James Madison University with a BA in English in 1996 and an MS in Technical and Scientific Communication in 2002, and is currently studying for an Ed.D. in Higher Education at the W&M School of Education. He has been with W&M since 2007. In addition to working in IT, John has taught occasionally at W&M and previously at Tidewater Community College, and in other roles has been an author, a musician, a Perl programmer, a UNIX systems engineer, and a network manager. He resides in Toano with his wife Andrea and daughter Rebekah.


  1. Andrew Bauserman says:

    All DRM (digital restriction management) shares a common flaw. In order to play a “protected” video, the user needs to be given the “key” to unlock it. If the user has the key to unlock it… then… 🙂

  2. Excellent point John. (Who IS that guy in the mustache?) Depending on the media, a watermark can be added. It might help to mention copyright in syllabi also.