Freedom Fonts: ZXX protests the NSA

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ZXX type specimen photograph
Ahead of our nation celebrating the Fourth of July and our independence from Great Britain, designer Sang Mun released a typeface that questions our independence from our own government. Mun, who worked as special intelligence personnel for the NSA, created ZXX, a series of visually encrypted fonts that can’t be read by optical character recognition software. They are visible to the human eye and digitally to computers — meaning it’s not really a way to stop the NSA from snooping, but rather a way to demonstrate opposition to government surveillance.
Traditionally, the basic aim of a font is readability: to communicate information quickly and clearly. Fonts can also make a statement. For Mun, who attended Rhode Island School of Design, the ZXX project is about raising awareness of citizen surveillance and creating a conversation around our loss of privacy. On working for the NSA, he wrote: “Our ability to gather vital SIGINT (Signal Intelligence) information was absolutely easy. But, these skills were only applied outwards for national security and defense purposes — not for overseeing American citizens. It appears that this has changed. Now, as a designer, I am influenced by these experiences and I have become dedicated to researching ways to “articulate our unfreedom” and to continue the evolution of my own thinking about censorship, surveillance, and a free society.” The ZXX fonts range in style and can be used interchangeably to further encrypting effect. Sans and bold are completley readable. Camo, Noise, False and Xed can’t be read by optical character recognition software, like Adobe, but are recognizable digitally and by the human eye.
In Camo, squiggly lines like camoflouge obscure the letters; Noise hides the letters under what looks like TV static; False employs decoy letter and requires readers to look for the real letters, which are small and inset among the decoys; Xed overlays exes over each letter, distracting the imaging software but not your eyes.
In all, they are a fun excersize, like invisible ink — and just as easily thwarted. Mun’s typeface is also reminiscent of graffiti, which, like a secret code, is meant for certain eyes only. Like graffiti, it’s simultaneously political and personal.
ZXX takes its name from Code “ZXX” in the Library of Congress’ listing of three-letter codes showing a book’s language. It stands for “No linguistic content; Not applicable.” But if you really don’t want the government to spy on you, you’ll have to be another step ahead and probably shouldn’t put anything in writing at all.

ZXX Type Specimen Video from Sang Mun on Vimeo. Download the font here.(scroll to the far right)   Rani Molla has a digital media master’s degree from Columbia Journalism School. She’s a journalism reader, writer, photographer, videographer, data visualizer and general doer. Follow her on Twitter.


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