‘Brand protection is facing an unprecedented threat with generative AI’

11 Aug 2023

Kieron Smith. Image: Angus Bremner

Kieron Smith, CTO at SnapDragon Monitoring, discusses his role and how generative AI is affecting the brand protection landscape.

Kieron Smith is chief technology officer at SnapDragon Monitoring, a company that provides brand protection and counterfeit monitoring services.

After studying artificial intelligence and software engineering at Edinburgh University, Smith began working for a series of SMEs in Edinburgh and London.

His early work was primarily focused on software for large financial institutions, including JP Morgan and Goldman Sachs, in the areas of business continuity, data analytics and client intelligence. He has also worked in automotive logistics.

Smith describes himself as a “facilitator”, saying that his role is to “envisage the future of [the company’s] product and then realise that vision”.

With the development team, Smith says his role is to “ensure that they understand the vision, have the tools to do their job, and have as few impediments as possible”.

“That can include anything from hardware and training, to championing best practices.

“Additionally, I form part of the leadership team, promote our company where I can, participate in speaking engagements and muck in with resolving any technical issues.”

What are some of the biggest challenges you’re facing in the current IT landscape and how are you addressing them?

Our biggest challenge is the discovery of source data which feeds into our database of listings.  This is no different from any of our competitors. We use a combination of web scraping, APIs, proxies and manual effort to obtain our data, none of which is perfect, least of all because the platforms are constantly changing, adapting and evolving. I liken it to an escalating arms race, in that platforms are becoming extremely protective of their data and generally making it more difficult for us to do our jobs.

On one hand, this is understandable as data is an incredibly prized resource in modern society. However, the brands for which we act as an agent have the right to protect their work and many platforms pay only lip service to countering counterfeiters and other bad actors. They get paid whether or not products are real or authorised and they are rarely ever held responsible, so they really don’t care.

Ideally, platforms would partner with organisations like us, and welcome the good publicity, but it is obviously currently better financially to treat us like the enemy. Of course, it would only be fair to mention a couple of the platforms that are trying, such as Tokopedia or eBay.

‘Brand protection is essentially the missing piece of any cybersecurity strategy’

What are your thoughts on digital transformation in a broad sense within your industry?

Digital transformation is vital to our industry. Legal tech has advanced considerably in the last decade and intellectual property protection is no different. While we were set up to support SMEs, legal firms are now a key channel for us and we partner with several, who each expect a level of technical capability on par with that burgeoning ecosystem.

Additionally, the intense discovery process, the categorisation and processing of infringements, and the collation requirement of a managed portal, have all necessitated transitioning traditional industry practices to a more streamlined, tech-backed solution.

Sustainability has become a key objective for businesses in recent years. What are your thoughts on how this can be addressed from an IT perspective?

While the impact of brand protection on sustainability is minor, the wider tech industry is revolutionising our approach to sustainability. Whether merging AI with geology to perfect drilling targets, optimising delivery routes or intelligently controlling thermostats, tech improves efficiency in nearly every computational aspect, which if correctly applied can have a domino effect that leverages its advantages.

Here in Scotland, small tech companies are pioneering research into sustainability. Topolytics applies mapping and machine learning to overcome the inaccuracies and data vacuums that currently hinder greater resource recovery globally, while Intelligent Growth Solutions are making great advancements in vertical farming, the practice of producing food in vertically stacked layers where all environmental factors can be controlled to optimise plant growth.

‘Generative AI struggles with the concept of copyright’

What big tech trends do you believe are changing the world and your industry specifically?

The obvious answer here is ChatGPT and similar generative AI models. It’s important to look beyond the scaremongering of AI taking over the world or taking all our jobs and realise that this emergent AI is just a tool like any other. They are not infallible however, their output must be checked thoroughly, cannot stand on its own and usually requires trained professionals to understand or incorporate.

The chat interface is certainly compelling and is a far cry from my first-year university experience with rudimentary chat interfaces written in Prolog. As it finds its place and settles in as a companion tool for everyday tasks, our working environment will be transformed. As many other procrastinators can attest, starting is often the most difficult thing, but having an AI ready to jump in and kick us off with tailored templates or basic code structures will drive efficiency and engagement dramatically.

It’s not all good though. There are already controversies surrounding the training of these models on IP (intellectual property) protected material, something which is clearly at odds with the IP holder’s rights. Additionally, generative AI struggles with the concept of copyright and there is nothing stopping bad actors from creating new art which includes copyrighted concepts and passing it off as legitimate, thereby creating another headache for brands. We’ve already seen this with NFTs, but now those digital assets can be produced automatically at scale.

What are your thoughts on how we can address the security challenges currently facing your industry?

Brand protection is facing an unprecedented threat with generative AI. Zero legislation means that the creators of these AI services currently answer to no one. Technically, they haven’t specifically coded them to produce infringing content and the inner workings of the models mean that they are decoupled from the creation process. Therefore, they don’t necessarily know what it’s doing and they can fob off responsibility to the AI and the operator.

Popular media can now be reproduced by generative AI and while it may not meet the same quality standards as the originals, it demonstrates how close we are to mainstream AI-generated media, and people are beginning to take it very seriously.

Right now, for example, actors are striking en masse to protect their own brand and ensure that studios do not have a perpetual licence to profit from their likeness, without compensation or subject matter agreement. It’s not just popular media that is being targeted. Deep fake pornography is also becoming frighteningly easy to produce.

While I can’t claim to know the answers to these problems, there may be a need to regulate such services, in a manner that balances fan fiction and artistic freedom with IP protection and an individual’s right to protect their likeness from exploitation. I’m guessing that regulations will be imposed very quickly when politicians become the regular targets.

Other areas of concern for brand protection with regards to security are phishing, fake domains and copycat websites, all intended to actively deceive consumers and unsuspecting employees. Understanding that brand protection is essentially the missing piece of any cybersecurity strategy is vital to businesses when protecting their overall brand. These threats are all about stealing login information or duping individuals into fulfilling fraudulent requests for money, yet never seem to be taken as seriously as phishing emails or insecure passwords.

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