Not only do designers need to consider the readability of intelligence briefs, they must also consider security, as well. Claire Whelan, a computer science Ph.D. student in Dublin, developed a technique to determine what’s behind blacked out words in publically released intelligence briefs. Ironically, Whelan’s algorithm has the State Department’s recent switch from Courier to Times New Roman to thank for its success.
The algorithm first analyzes the size of the word, then uses information about the font to determine what words could fit in that space. Grammatically incorrect words are then eliminated. At that point, a human must peruse the remaining choices to find the most likely option. (I’m sure more advanced techniques could be applied to further pare down the list, but I’ll give her a break since she did this in less than a week.)
Though the algorithm is fairly weak, designers may now have to devise ways to prevent obfuscated text from being decrypted while maintaining readability. Is it time to get out the newspaper and scissors?