Sang Mun, a former contractor with the US National Security Agency (NSA), hopes that his ZXX font will strike a blow for internet freedom – making it harder for the authorities and hackers to spy upon our communications.
The Korean font developer says that he spent a year researching and creating the ZXX family of fonts, which aim to make it harder for computers to read messages, and he sounds like he had noble intentions:
Project ZXX is my humane contribution and homage to the activists, artists, and designers who have been actively fighting for our civil liberties.
But, unfortunately, his project is doomed by a fundamental lack of understanding of how messages are spied upon.
Regardless of whether you communicate electronically using Sang Mun’s font, Comic Sans or something more traditional, it makes *no* difference to anyone spying electronically on your communications.
The messages you send via email, instant messaging, Facebook and other social networks, are composed of bytes. Each letter of your message is normally represented by one single byte. For instance, the letter “A” (regardless of how it might look in your screen font) is represented by the number 65. “B” is 66, “C” is 67. And so on…
The computers which might be spying on your communications don’t *see* the font like a human would, they just see a bunch of numbers which they piece together back into characters and ultimately words, phrases and sentences.
So, it makes no difference to these computers if a font, for example, disguises a capital “T” as a capital “G”.
Where ZXX *could* be useful is if you send messages as *images*. In those cases, optical character recognition (OCR) technology may find it difficult to decipher the secret message you have placed inside a JPEG, GIF or PNG file.
However, the secret services aren’t using OCR (at least, not primarily) to snoop on communications.
Even if they were, you can imagine that if ZXX became well known and popular, the likes of the NSA would simply add knowledge of the font to their arsenal and extend their expert systems to decipher it from images in the same way they might handle the likes of Comic Sans, Windings and Times Roman.
Quite frankly, if you’re going to all the effort of composing messages in an image editor, why aren’t you using proper end-to-end encryption on your sensitive messages anyway, ensuring that if they do fall into the wrong hands they can’t be deciphered?
It’s a nice art project by Sang Mun, but I don’t think anyone serious about keeping their conversations private from the-powers-that-be will be rushing to add it to their portfolio of privacy tools.
Found this article interesting? Follow Graham Cluley on Twitter to read more of the exclusive content we post.