Why Making A Peace Sign In Public Is Now A Security Risk

from the and-not-just-for-political-reasons dept

The British have a number of traditions. Some, such as drinking tea, are famous around the world. Less well-known is a habit of revealing highly-confidential information by carrying pieces of paper in public that photographers using long-focus lenses are able to snap and then magnify to read. The Guardian wrote an entire article on the subject, detailing how numerous embarrassing leaks occurred in the UK because people forgot to put the documents they were holding in some kind of opaque folder. On one occasion, an anti-terror operation had to be brought forward when Britain's most senior counterterrorism officer walked around with top secret documents on display -- a blunder that cost him his job.

This mistake is so common that there are notices by the door of the UK Prime Minister's residence at Number 10 Downing Street reminding people not to walk out with confidential material that is exposed. The fact that there is a photographer with a long-focus lens who hangs around outside No 10 in the hope that they do precisely that shows how often they ignore this warning.

Although the Brits have practically turned this activity into another weird sport alongside cricket, it's not unknown in the US. For example, the following happened at the end of November last year:

Potential Donald Trump cabinet pick Kris Kobach accidentally leaked Department of Homeland Security plans when posing for a press photograph with the president-elect. Using photo editing tools, a zoomed-in view on the documents being carried by Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach reveals a plan to put Trump’s hard-line immigration platform into practice.

Aside from the carelessness of the people involved, the problem has arisen because long-focus lenses are now so powerful and commonly-deployed that it is relatively easy to capture a high-quality image of an exposed document so that its contents can be read. That's a problem that will only get worse as camera technology advances, especially combined with digital enhancement techniques. If this story on the BBC's website is to be believed, it's not just documents that are now at risk as a result:

A Japanese researcher says doing the peace sign in a photo could lead to your fingerprints being stolen.

They might be easy to recreate if your digits are "in focus with strong lighting".

That claim is from Isao Echizen, from the National Institute of Informatics (NIII), who says prints could then be made "widely available".

That's clearly a big problem at a time when fingerprints are increasingly being used to unlock digital devices, and to provide access to sensitive data. The British experience shows it's hard enough to shield confidential papers; keeping fingerprints out of high-resolution photos seems like an impossible task.

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter or identi.ca, and +glynmoody on Google+

Hide this

Thank you for reading this Techdirt post. With so many things competing for everyone’s attention these days, we really appreciate you giving us your time. We work hard every day to put quality content out there for our community.

Techdirt is one of the few remaining truly independent media outlets. We do not have a giant corporation behind us, and we rely heavily on our community to support us, in an age when advertisers are increasingly uninterested in sponsoring small, independent sites — especially a site like ours that is unwilling to pull punches in its reporting and analysis.

While other websites have resorted to paywalls, registration requirements, and increasingly annoying/intrusive advertising, we have always kept Techdirt open and available to anyone. But in order to continue doing so, we need your support. We offer a variety of ways for our readers to support us, from direct donations to special subscriptions and cool merchandise — and every little bit helps. Thank you.

–The Techdirt Team

Filed Under: fingerprints, photographs, privacy


Reader Comments

Subscribe: RSS

View by: Thread


  1. identicon
    ANON, 25 Jan 2017 @ 10:07am

    Nothing New

    I think it was Popular Photography back in the mid-1970's that published an article about photographic insecurity. As a test, a press photographer took a huge (YUGE!!) telephoto into the Helsinki international summit press gallery. He got photos over Kissinger's shoulder of him reading classified briefings - which turned out to be a simple newswire roundup. (Moral- governments will stamp anything as "Secret", as if we didn't know)

    Similarly, about 20 years ago the Canadian government had to quickly rewrite parts of their budget; (budgets in Parliament are secret until the details are announced) the finance minister in a photo op the day before the release was flipping through the secret budget bill and someone realized that freeze-framing the video allowed them to read details of some new tax measures.

    One of the early programs, even before iPhones, allowed a flip-phone user to video a page and feed it into a compute program to create a full-page higher resolution picture; something especially useful in Japan with pictographic printing. People would video the article they were reading at a magazine stand.

Add Your Comment

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here



Subscribe to the Techdirt Daily newsletter




Comment Options:

  • Use markdown. Use plain text.
  • Remember name/email/url (set a cookie)

Follow Techdirt
Special Affiliate Offer

Essential Reading
Techdirt Deals
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Techdirt Insider Chat
Recent Stories
.

This site, like most other sites on the web, uses cookies. For more information, see our privacy policy. Got it
Close

Email This

This feature is only available to registered users. Register or sign in to use it.