ZXX is a typeface created to throw off government invasions of privacy.

On left, from top to bottom--Bold, Sans, Camo, False, Noise, Xed. Bold and Sans are completely legible. All of the others are cloaked in some way.

Sang Mun developed the typeface as part of a counter-surveillance for the average Joe. And you can see his love for typography within the flourish of his obfuscation.

Here we see ZXX in its completely legible form. But once converted into an illegible style, it can’t be scanned and algorithmically converted to computer-comprehended text.

Left: uncloaked. Right: cloaked.

Mun’s efforts have received considerable attention after documents pertaining to Prism, a U.S. national security electronic surveillance program, were leaked to the public.

Co.Design

A Typeface Designed To Thwart NSA Surveillance

Worried about spying eyes? Here’s a typeface created with the government’s prying computers in mind.

Long before Edward Snowden leaked the Prism documents, Sang Mun served two years of mandatory service for the Korean military, gathering intelligence under the NSA. He didn’t choose to publish any classified documents, but he’s encouraging a counter-surveillance revolution in his own way: by designing ZXX a typeface to thwart prying eyes.

“Sometimes these ideas about privacy can feel large and abstract to the average person,” Mun tells Co.Design. “ZXX might bridge the disconnect between the supercomputers at Fort Meade and someone’s Microsoft Word at home.”

In its sans and bold forms, ZXX is completely legible (by humans and machines). But the free downloadable font comes with four illegible styles--Camo, False, Noise, and Xed--that Mun created with the eye of a designer and the acuity of an ex-NSA agent. Camo, for instance, looks like letters wearing camouflage--but there’s a good reason beyond the military overtones. That pattern also confuses the logic driving optical character recognition devices. In other words, something typed in Camo can’t be scanned and algorithmically converted to computer-comprehended text.

On left, from top to bottom--Bold, Sans, Camo, False, Noise, Xed.

Another permutation called False takes a different approach, inverting the characters you type like a cypher. An A becomes a Z, or 0 becomes a 9. Again, it’s meant to confuse machine logic, but humans can easily make out a tiny alternate letter embedded inside.

So could you really dodge the NSA by typing emails in this font? Not really. There are mountains of metadata and other means with which you’re tracked. And on top of that, Mun is the first to admit the relative obviousness of his own trickery.

“In all likeliness, it would be impossible to fool the NSA with a typeface for long,” he writes. “When I first showed the work to my peers, they enjoyed the subtle humor embedded in my political statements. It was obvious that this wasn’t the best tool to fight the authorities, but it did attract attention, even before the recent revelations regarding Prism.”

And that’s really the point. ZXX is an advocacy platform in a font, as well as a turnkey tool to empower a little digital disobedience. At the end of the day, ZXX’s goal isn’t actually communication obfuscation. ZXX is meant, ironically, to send a very specific message to our government.

Download it here.

[Hat tip: Gizmodo]

[Illustration: Kelly Rakowski/Co.Design]

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16 Comments

  • Interesting. Isn't it true that you can write a program to recognize the exact characters of each font, since they don't dynamically change? Sure, current programs trip up on these fonts, but all you'd need to do is write a program that specifically recognizes each character of each font. This was mind blowing when I was faded, but now it's pretty lame, being sober..

  • CQ

    Typeface designed to thwart NSA surveillance ... unless NSA is intercepting your paper mail and scanning it in to digitalice it it's not gonna help in any way (and even then this would only be good if the font had a dynamic camo, giving a letter a different camo each time)

    What we see on the screen is the visual expression of a digital code. NSA computers don't see the visual expression but the digital code and by that this awesome idea is just useless from the very beginning.

    Inverting the Alphabet and Numbers, which would be Encrypting, is a better idea. But even with a free downloadable software your code would be broken in 0.1 sec ... or even less by NSA.

  • Jarrod

    I think everyone should realize that this is a college student and a college project. What were you doing in college? Creating a font is hard enough, let alone using it to have a political message. We should be patting him on the back for experimenting and having a voice. 

  • Jozef

    This is great for people who write their mail in word, then print it and scan it into a PDF and then attach it to an e-mail.

  • Sean Smith

    "Security through obscurity" - Q 

    Except against those who are supposed to be upholding our security. Irony.

  • Geoff

    Destined to be an urban legend but sorry, "computer says no."

    It's the underlying Unicode for which text is expressed. Changing the face is immaterial. But this is the kind of stuff that Facebook memes are based on. It's the kind of stuff that shrewd marketing is base on.

    I wonder how many times this will go around the Internet and be rehashed over and over again? I'd like to see the sales figures too.

    Hey, Fast Company, I would have expected you to know and do better.

  • weezus

    are you stupid?  The letters look the same each time they are typed!  Teach your OCR software what the alphabet looks like in these fonts and they become useless!

  • Torin

    Not that it makes a difference but they could have AT LEAST used whois privacy on their site...

  • ari9999

    Thank you, Mr Mun, for a deeply considered and lovingly executed political statement. 

    Your surname (transliterated in English) spelled backwards is Num: which is what most people are -- numb to the vast encroachments of the emerging total surveillance state. Thanks for being the opposite of Num. We all need to be a little more Mun. 

  • Hermit

    good idea if NSA was using OCRs to interpret the comms.. however all communication is digital and a string is not passed rendered (hence requiring OCR).

  • Scott Sullivan

    Yeah I was just going to say this.. what are the computers printing everything out and running CV algorithms?

  • Whea7

    "And that’s really the point. ZXX is an advocacy platform in a font, as well as a turnkey tool to empower a little digital disobedience. At the end of the day, ZXX’s goal isn’t actually communication obfuscation. ZXX is meant, ironically, to send a very specific message to our government."

    I like the message.  Now go talk to your reps/protest/vote.

  • Hermit

    if you want to send a message, complain, whine, demonstrate.. using a font serves no purpose - not in this case at least

  • Shawn

    I don't think the point is the effectiveness of it. The political statement is the point. And, it's also quite pretty to look at.

  • Hunrudpop

    This is utterly useless. Anyone who thinks this font will stop digital data scraping has a complete lack of what digital communication is.

  • NoahRobischon

    The designer admits as much in the story. What's your point? Should he not have tried in the first place?