In a post-privacy age, everyone has to acknowledge that they could be under surveillance by the government. “Seen” is a new computer font by Emil Kazole that lets you know in real time if what you’re typing is likely to make the NSA’s surveillance antenna twitch. How? By using ligatures to cross out verboten words that typically make NSA computers take notice.
In computer typography, ligatures are a wonderful little invention. They’re little cheats that tell a computer to render two or more characters placed next to each other in a different way; for example, to render ‘a’ and ‘e’ as an æ when they are next to each other. Most of the time, your favorite fonts use ligatures in such a way that you barely notice them, subtly adjusting the letters you’re typing to optimize them for beauty and readability. But in the hands of more adventurous font designers, ligatures can be almost magical, allowing you to recreate the idiosyncratic handwriting of Sigmund Freud or make a data visualization in a word processor.
In the case of the Seen typeface, ligatures are used to automatically censor words on the NSA’s “spook word” list—a list which, incidentally, is pretty weird in its own right, encompassing not just words like “Guantanamo,” “CIA,” “Illuminati,” and “panopticon,” but seemingly commonplace words like “basement,” “birthday,” “blackjack,” and “blowfish.” These words are part of an NSA Prism database of terms originally leaked by Edward Snowden in 2013 that are used like a surveillance scoring system by government spy agencies. As the NSA is watching your email, messages, or chat logs, the more of these words you use, the more the NSA is likely to subject you to scrutiny. (Hi, spooks!)
The point of the Seen font is to get people thinking about the privacy implications of what they are writing, as they are writing. That email you send your buddies suggesting Beef Wellington for dinner and then a little blackjack in the basement? It’s a potential minefield of NSA spook words that could send agents kicking down your door, if you use enough of them.
Seen can be downloaded and installed on any computer as a standard font, no special software required. You can download it here