Love your data

Large yellow road sign with black text saying Ignore Sat Nav next to an orange and white traffic cone on a foggy road at night well lit by street lighting

by Paul Curzon, Queen Mary University of London

A heart icon on a computer keyboard
Computer heart key image adapted from an image by congerdesign from Pixabay

How are you two doing together? You and your data, we mean. It’d be nice to have an update. Do you understand one another in that special OMG-we’ve-talked-all-night-and-now-the-sun’s-up kind of way? Is it more like you just kind of hang out together without really bothering to think about each other? Or maybe you’re just a bit baffled by the whole data scene. If your heart doesn’t beat with fervent love for the wild binary information all around you, that’s OK. In fact that’s pretty normal. It just so happens, though, that there’s a guy who wants to improve your data relationships. He’s called Andy Broomfield and he’s just graduated as a designer from the Royal College of Art.

Andy’s worried that as we rely more and more on gadgets like mobiles and satnavs, a lot of us stop thinking about where the data comes from. “Increasingly we’re becoming dependent on the data,” says Andy. “We are just blindly fed it.” He tells the story of some councils that had to put up ‘Ignore Your Satnav’ signs after lorry drivers followed electronic directions down narrow lanes rather than believe their own eyes. He reckons that hapless users wouldn’t get quite so “data-lost” if we had a way to really connect with the pure information out there, being broadcast from satellites every second of the day. So he designed some gadgets of his own to help get our data relationships back on the rails.

Time to yourself

The first device lets you keep a personal time zone, and was inspired by a group of data-lovers who are sweet on measuring time. Time zones divide the globe into long tall ribbons based on longitude. Since GPS satellites can give each of us extremely accurate longitude readings all the time (the cs4fn offices are apparently at .042 degrees west), why not go even further and cut the ribbons up even more? That’s what Andy’s Longitude Time Piece does, to the point where you can uncover what Andy calls “your own local time zone”, right down to the second. Then you’d know that wherever you go, your timing would always be perfect.

Large yellow road sign with black text saying Ignore Sat Nav next to an orange and white traffic cone on a foggy road at night well lit by street lighting
Ignore Sat Nav image by Dan Pope on Flickr, used under a CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 licence.

Flooded with facts

Andy’s second invention is another GPS-flavoured one. Even though a lot of us can get lost really easily (even with maps and satellites to help), others love getting down and dirty with geographic data. This gadget’s good for both groups. People with a great sense of data direction can use the Geo Flood Browser to get info on the nearest river, wherever they are.

They can also share the love with others who get a bit data-lost, by leaving electronic tags around to let them know if the area gets flooded a lot. Then people nearby can use the tags using their own gadget to find out whether they ought to be stocking up on boats and snorkels before the next flood hits.

Spot a satellite

Finally Andy’s designed a gadget for your data relationships in space. Satellite spotters are kind of like backyard astronomers, except they love catching glimpses of the satellites that orbit the Earth. With Andy’s device anyone can tune into a satellite that’s above them and listen to it. You can either hear a voice tell you about the satellite, or you can actually listen into the bleeps of information coming from the satellite itself. That way, Andy says, you get “a connection to the pure data, the data that we’re dependent upon in the world.” It’s strange to think that this data is around us all the time – it’s just our phones and TVs that normally listen in, rather than us. If information is the lifeblood of our high-tech lives, the Satellite Scanner lets you listen to its heart.

Each of Andy’s devices uses information from the satellites whizzing, Cupid-like, around the Earth. The unusual thing is what they do with it – they’re not about being really useful so much as they are about actually experiencing the data that’s out there in the real world. That’s how he’s aiming to improve our data relationships. It’s like the way you can know someone for ages, but never see what they’re really about until you look from a different angle. Except this time it’s with satellites. Weird, eh? But good. A little like love.

This article was originally published on the CS4FN website and can also be found on pages (p4-5) of Issue 8 of the CS4FN magazine “Computer science in space” which you can download below, along with all of our other free material.

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This blog is funded through EPSRC grant EP/W033615/1.

Delicious computing: gestural computing with bananas and pizzas…

A photograph of ripening yellow bananas

by Paul Curzon, Queen Mary University of London

Imagine being able to pick up an ordinary banana and use it as a phone. That’s part of the vision of ‘invoked computing’, which is being developed by Japanese researchers. A lot of the computers in our lives are camouflaged – smartphones are more like computers than phones, after all – but invoked computing would mean that computers would be everywhere and nowhere at the same time.

The idea is that in the future, computer systems could monitor an entire environment, watching your movements. Whenever you wanted to interact with a computer, you would just need to make a gesture. For example, if you picked up a banana and held one end to your ear and the other to your mouth, the computer would guess that you wanted to use the phone. It would then use a fancy speaker system to direct the sound, so you would even hear the phone call as though it were coming from the banana.

Sometimes you might find yourself needing a bit more computing power, though, right? Not to worry. You can make yourself a laptop if you just find an old pizza box. Lift the lid and the system will project the video and sound straight on to the box.

At the moment the banana phone and pizza box laptop are the only ways that you can use invoked computing in the researchers’ system, but they hope to expand it so that you can use other objects. Then, rather than having to learn how to use your computers, your computers will have to learn how you would like to use them. And when you are finished using your phone, you could eat it.

This article was originally published on CS4FN and can also be found on page 2 of CS4FN Issue 15, Does your computer understand you?, which you can download as a PDF. All of our free material can be downloaded here:

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This blog is funded through EPSRC grant EP/W033615/1.

Hiding in Skype: cryptography and steganography

Magic book with sparkly green and purple colours

by Paul Curzon, Queen Mary University of London

Computer Science isn’t just about using language, sometimes it’s about losing it. Sometimes people want to send messages so no one even knows they exist and a great place to lose language is inside a conversation.

Cryptography is the science of making messages unreadable. Spymasters have used it for a thousand years or more. Now it’s a part of everyday life. It’s used by the banks every time you use a cash point and by online shops when you buy something over the Internet. It’s used by businesses that don’t want their industrial secrets revealed and by celebrities who want to be sure that tabloid hackers can’t read their texts.

Cryptography stops messages being read, but sometimes just knowing that people are having a conversation can reveal more than they want even if you don’t know what was said. Knowing a football star is exchanging hundreds of texts with his team mate’s girlfriend suggests something is going on, for example. Similarly, CIA chief David Petraeus whose downfall made international news, might have kept his secret and his job if the emails from his lover had been hidden. David Bowie kept his 2013 comeback single ‘Where are we now?’ a surprise until the moment it was released. It might not have made him the front page news it did if a music journalist had just tracked who had been talking to who amongst the musicians involved in the months before.

That’s where steganography comes in – the science of hiding messages so no one even knows they exist. Invisible ink is one form of steganography used, for example, by the French resistance in World War II. More bizarre forms have been used over the years though – an Ancient Greek slave had a message tattooed on his shaven head warning of Persian invasion plans. Once his hair had grown back he delivered it with no one on the way the wiser.

Digital communication opens up new ways to hide messages. Computers store information using a code of 0s and 1s: bits. Steganography is then about finding places to hide those bits. A team of Polish researchers led by Wojciech Mazurczyk have now found a way to hide them in a Skype conversation.

When you use Skype to make a phone call, the program converts the sounds you make to a long series of bits. They are sent over the Internet and converted back to sound at the other end. At the same time more sounds as bits stream back from the person you are talking to. Data transmitted over the Internet isn’t sent all in one go, though. It’s broken into packets: a bit like taking your conversation and tweeting it one line at a time.

Why? Imagine you run a crack team of commandos who have to reach a target in enemy territory to blow it up – a stately home where all the enemy’s Generals are having a party perhaps. If all the commandos travel together in one army truck and something goes wrong along the way probably no one will make it – a disaster. If on the other hand they each travel separately, rendezvousing once there, the mission is much more likely to be successful. If a few are killed on the way it doesn’t matter as the rest can still complete the mission.

The same applies to a Skype call. Each packet contains a little bit of the full conversation and each makes its own way to the destination across the Internet. On arriving there, they reform into the full message. To allow this to happen, each packet includes some extra data that says, for example, what conversation it is part of, how big it is and also where it fits in the sequence. If some don’t make it then the rest of the conversation can still be put back together without them. As long as too much isn’t missing, no one will notice.

Skype does something special with its packets. The size of the packets changes depending on how much data needs to be transmitted. If the person is talking each packet carries a lot of information. If the person is listening then what is being transmitted is mainly silence. Skype then sends shorter packets. The Polish team realised they could exploit this for steganography. Their program, SkyDe, intercepts Skype packets looking for short ones. Any found are replaced with packets holding the data from the covert message. At the destination another copy of SkyDe intercepts them and extracts the hidden message and passes it on to the intended recipient. As far as Skype is concerned some packets just never arrive.

There are several properties that matter for a good steganographic technique. One is its bandwidth: how much data can be sent using the method. Because Skype calls contain a lot of silence SkyDe has a high bandwidth: there are lots of opportunities to hide messages. A second important property is obviously undetectability. The Polish team’s experiments have shown that SkyDe messages are very hard to detect. As only packets that contain silence are used and so lost, the people having the conversation won’t notice and the Skype receiver itself can’t easily tell because what is happening is no different to a typical unreliable network. Packets go missing all the time. Because both the Skype data and the hidden messages are encrypted, someone observing the packets travelling over the network won’t see a difference – they are all just random patterns of bits. Skype calls are now common so there are also lots of natural opportunities for sending messages this way – no one is going to get suspicious that lots of calls are suddenly being made.

All in all SkyDe provides an elegant new form of steganography. Invisible ink is so last century (and tattooing messages on your head so very last millennium). Now the sound of silence is all you need to have a hidden conversation.

A version of this article was originally published on the CS4FN website and a copy also appears on pages 10-11 of Issue 16 of the magazine (see Related magazines below).

You can also download PDF copies of all of our free magazines.

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This blog is funded through EPSRC grant EP/W033615/1.