Picture within a picture: Holograms hide confidential info

Telegraph-Journal archive

Holograms, in their most basic form, are an illusion. They make your eye see something that isn’t actually there. Dr. Habib Hamam is using them to hide secrets.

The Université de Moncton professor said he has developed software that takes a public image – say a photograph of the White House – and hides confidential information within the data – say blueprints for the inner sanctum.

The original White House picture will change, perhaps a tiny blue pixel of sky will blacken, but the naked human eye won’t be able to notice it. However, a hacker with the help of technology potentially could.

This is where Hamam’s holograms come in. Should a meticulous hacker pick up on the differences and dig deeper into the data, any suspicion would be wiped out when he or she encountered the hologram. But instead of a pixelated 3D Captain Kirk rising from a computer screen, they would see a mess of garbled numbers. Dismissing it as digital nonsense, the hacker would move on. At least this is what Hamam is counting on.

The method of hiding data within other seemingly innocent data is called steganography. When a teenage boy saves pornography in a computer file and calls it Tax Forms 2004, it’s the same basic technique.

Steganography, rooted in the Greek word for ‘covering,’ is the most recent advance in data protection. It joins other methods such as watermarking, which is usually used to protect intellectual property such as photographs, and cryptography, which takes information and makes it look jumbled to unauthorized people.

Cryptography has been used “since the time of Jesus,” Hamam said. It’s evolved from ancient ciphers to digital encryption.

But the problem with cryptography, Hamam said, is that even if it makes the data very hard to access or figure out, you still know it’s there. Steganography is about stealth. Hackers are less likely to decrypt an image that looks perfectly normal.

Hamam is the first to add the second level of protection with holograms. But they have another benefit: they make it possible to hide more information in a single image. Usually when cloaking information within other data, the host has to be significantly larger than the information you’re trying to hide so the changes aren’t as noticeable.

“You can insert the baby of the kangaroo inside the pocket of the kangaroo mother, but you cannot do the opposite,” Hamam said.

With Hamam’s holograph, the baby kangaroo could be a quarter of the mother’s size and stay hidden.

Hamam said he has already developed software that can produce a modified image from a public picture and your secret information with the click of a button. Now he’s taking it one step further. Hamam said he wants to see if he can apply the same holographic idea to audio tracks.

For this, Hamam – who holds a Canada Research Chair – is partnering with Sid-Ahmed Selouani, a professor at the Université de Moncton’s Shippagan campus who specializes in audio.

“I’m very advanced in images, but now I’m tackling a new road.”

Hamam estimates it will cost around $1.7 million to turn his research to product, and has received funding from a variety of sources, including the New Brunswick Innovation Fund. He said his research could be ready to commercialize in two years. When it does, theoretically anyone would be able to buy the software. He said he hopes to make it into an app for mobile devices as well.

Holograms could also be used by companies wanting to protect their own software from being illegally copied to another computer by branding the original computer’s information onto the software and hiding it.

Hamam also has a marketing partner connected to the Minister of Defence.

Everyone has information they want to protect, he said.

Previously published May 23, 2011; the Telegraph-Journal