Student uncovers US military secrets

'Felt-tip pen' censorship cracked

An Irish graduate student has uncovered words blacked-out of declassified US military documents using nothing more than a dictionary and text analysis software.

Claire Whelan, a computer science student at Dublin City University was given the problems by her PhD supervisor as a diversion. David Naccache, a cryptographer with Gemplus, challenged her to discover the words missing from two documents: one was a memo to George Bush, and another concerned military modifications to civilian helicopters.

The process is quite straightforward, and according to Naccache, Whelan's success proves that merely blotting words out of declassified documents will not keep the contents secret.

The first task is to identify the font, and font size the missing word was written in. Once that is done, the dictionary search begins for words that fit the space, plus or minus three pixels, Naccache explained.

This process yielded 1,530 possibilities for word blanked out of a sentence in the Bush memo. Then, the text anaysis routine checks for words that would make sense in English. The sentence was: "An Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ) operative told an XXXXXXXX service at the same time that Bin Ladin was planning to exploit the operative's access to the US to mount a terrorist strike." Just 346 words remained on the list at this stage.

The next stage is to involve the brain of the researcher. This eliminated all but seven words: Ugandan, Ukrainian, Egyptian, uninvited, incursive, indebted and unofficial. Naccache plumped for Egyptian, in this case.

Whelan subjected the helicopter memo to the same scrutiny, and the results suggested South Korea was the most likely anonymous supplier of helicopter knowledge to Iraq.

Although the technique is no good for tackling larger sections of text, it does show that officials need to be more careful with their sensitive documents. Naccache argues that the most important conclusion of this work "is that censoring text by blotting out words and re-scanning is not a secure practice".

According to the original report in Nature, intelligence experts may consider changing procedures. ®

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