Distorted Text Says A Lot

Getting bounced to a website by scanning a QR code is no longer an exciting feat of technology, but what if you scanned the ingredient list on your granola bar and it went to the company’s page for that specific flavor, sans the matrix code?

Bright minds at the Columbia University in the City of New York have “perturbed” ordinary font characters so the average human eye won’t pick up the changes. Even ordinary OCR won’t miss a beat when it looks at a passage with a hidden message. After all, these “perturbed” glyphs are like a perfectly legible character viewed through a drop of water. When a camera is looking for these secret messages, those minor tweaks speak volumes.

The system is diabolically simple. Each character can be distorted according to an algorithm and a second variable. Changing that second variable is like twisting a distorted lens, or a water drop but the afterimage can be decoded and the variable extracted. This kind of encoding can survive a trip to the printer, unlike a purely digital hidden message.

Hidden messages like these are not limited to passing notes, metadata can be attached to any text and extracted when necessary. Literature could include notes without taking up page space so teachers could include helpful notes and a cell phone could be like an x-ray machine to see what the teacher wants to show. For example, you could define what “crypto” actually means.

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TEMPEST: A Signal Problem

TEMPEST is the covername used by the NSA and other agencies to talk about emissions from computing machinery that can divulge what the equipment is processing. We’ve covered a few projects in the past that specifically intercept EM radiation. TEMPEST for Eliza can transmit via AM using a CRT monitor, and just last Fall a group showed how to monitor USB keyboards remotely. Through the Freedom of Information Act, an interesting article from 1972 has been released. TEMPEST: A Signal Problem (PDF link dead, try Internet Archive version) covers the early history of how this phenomenon was discovered. Uncovered by Bell Labs in WWII, it affected a piece of encryption gear they were supplying to the military. The plaintext could be read over that air and also by monitoring spikes on the powerlines. Their new, heavily shielded and line filtered version of the device was rejected by the military who simply told commanders to monitor a 100 feet around their post to prevent eavesdropping. It’s an interesting read and also covers acoustic monitoring. This is just the US history of TEMPEST though, but from the anecdotes it sounds like their enemies were not just keeping pace but were also better informed.

[via Schneier]