ZXXWalker Art Center/The Gradient

How to hide text from NSA's automated surveillance

Thanks to Edward Snowden and others, we know that the National Security Agency is listening. But what if we spoke in a language we could understand but they couldn’t? What if we wrote in a typeface we could read but would look like gibberish to the NSA’s massive supercomputers?

That’s the puzzle Sang Mun set out to solve. During his two years in the Sourth Korean military, Mun worked as a contractor for the NSA, extracting information from intelligence intercepts. He’s also a graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design. So Mung designed a typeface that can be deciphered by humans, but not by the optical character recognition software employed by spy agencies to rapidly scan billions of documents as they fly across the InterWebs.

The typeface, called ZXX, inserts artifacts and extraneous bits of information that our brains can easily filter out, but machines can’t (at least, not yet). Some versions of ZXX can be scanned by OCR, some can’t. For example, the text at the top of the graphic at the left is composed in ZXX Combination and not computer readable. The text immediately below is written in ZXX Bold, which can be read by machines and humans alike.

Walker Art Center/The Gradient
The top text is composed in  ZXX Combination and not computer readable; below, the text is in ZXX Bold, readable by OCR and people.

Of course, if the spooks really want to read documents written using one of ZXX’s machine-unfriendly variants, they will open them up and look at them. ZXX isn’t a form of encryption so much as a kind of political commentary. (See also "How to protect your PC from Prism surveillance.")

On his blog Mun writes:

ZXX is a call to action, both practically and symbolically, to raise questions about privacy. But it represents a broader urgency: How can design be used politically and socially for the codification and de-codification of people’s thoughts? What is a graphic design that is inherently secretive? How can graphic design reinforce privacy? And, really, how can the process of design engender a proactive attitude towards the future — and our present for that matter?

If we cannot loosen the grip of the industrial surveillance complex (and given the state of our courts and our congress, what hope is there of that?) we can make it work that much harder. Resistance isn’t futile; it’s the last best hope we have.

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