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.
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.