On Typographic Disguises
When type needs to be especially persuasive, surprising, or sneaky, it can don disguises that range from harmless mimicry to cryptographic complexity. An example of mimicry is type design that makes Roman letters look Arabic, veiling identity without completely concealing it. Sometimes such mimicry is clever; sometimes it is as unconvincing as a half-hearted Halloween costume.
Typographic disguises in the Darwinian world of online security are more interesting because they are constantly evolving into useful and nefarious forms. By disguising itself, type can spirit unwanted messages past the firewalls protecting our inboxes, blog posts, and online accounts. However, the typographic disguises that take advantage of us also can be used in our defense.
When we’re banking or shopping online, most of us compose passwords and simply hope we will be inconspicuous in the enormous crush of internet traffic. But typography can help protect us by camouflaging itself with distortion and visual static. For instance, CAPTCHA applications turn letters and words into shapes that cannot be read by automatic character readers, and therefore ensure that real humans are commenting on blogs and filling out forms. Sometimes CAPTCHA inadvertently creates poetry.
Recently, Google announced a non-typographic security system that will replace CAPTCHA.
If a Russian “dating” service is a lone angler on the internet, then government security systems are industrial fishing fleets trawling oceans of communication. In response to online surveillance, one designer designed a family of typefaces that cannot be read by optical character readers (OCR). The designer is Sang Mun, and his 2012 typeface is called ZXX, which is the code used by the Library of Congress to describe books that have “no linguistic content.” Four of the typefaces in the ZXX family can be read by humans but not by OCR software. They do this by obscuring letters behind tangles of random shapes, or by hiding small letters in forests of larger ones. A video about ZXX states outright that the typeface hides communication from “autocratic predators, in this case governments and corporations.”
Copyright holders constantly battle the theft of digital content and hunt down their stolen possessions online. Those who pirate audio, images, and videos and want to hide them from copyright holders disguise file names by mixing scripts, characters, and punctuation to confuse automated searches. For instance, they might title videos M.A.D.O.N.N.A or $H@Q-IRA. However, there seems to be less of this going on as character mixing may no longer be an effective method of disguise. It seems Google and Unicode have their ways to identify and restrict the use of suspicious character combinations.
Average web users are indebted to the developers of spam filters and firewalls. Nevertheless, determined spammers still find ways to nab our email addresses and sneak into our inboxes. Recently, some type nerds have noted the arrival of emails set in hybrid Roman characters that resemble Vietnamese. One commentator describes the type as looking like it comes out of the Yale graduate design program! Pentagram designer Natasha Jen called this typography “hot.”
Defenses against this attractive spam have probably already been created, but no doubt new typographic disguises will be designed to grab our attention, our secrets, and our dollar$.