US intelligence exposed as student decodes Iraq memo

Ian Grigg iang at
Sun May 16 11:35:30 EDT 2004

-------- Original Message --------
Subject: Financial Cryptography Update: US intelligence exposed as student decodes Iraq memo



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[IMAGE]It took less then a week to decipher the blotted out words.

Armed with little more than an electronic dictionary and text-analysis
software, Claire Whelan, a graduate student in computer science at
Dublin City University in Ireland, has managed to decrypt words that
had been blotted out from declassified documents to protect
intelligence sources.

She and one of her PhD supervisors, David Naccache, a cryptographer
with Gemplus, which manufactures banking and security cards, tackled
two high-profile documents. One was a memo to US President George Bush
that had been declassified in April for an inquiry into the 11
September 2001 terrorist attacks. The other was a US Department of
Defense memo about who helped Iraq to 'militarize' civilian Hughes

It all started when Naccache saw the Bush memo on television over
Easter. "I was bored, and I was looking for challenges for Claire to
solve. She's a wild problem solver, so I thought that with this one I'd
get peace for a week," Naccache says. Whelan produced a solution in
slightly less than that.

Demasking blotted out words was easy, Naccache told Nature. "Optical
recognition easily identified the font type - in this case Arial - and
its size," he says. "Knowing this, you can estimate the size of the
word behind the blot. Then you just take every word in the dictionary
and calculate whether or not, in that font, it is the right size to fit
in the space, plus or minus 3 pixels.

A computerized dictionary search yielded 1,530 candidates for a blotted
out word in this sentence of the Bush memo: "An Egyptian Islamic Jihad
(EIJ) operative told an XXXXXXXX service at the same time that Bin
Ladin was planning to exploit the operative's access to the US to mount
a terrorist strike." A grammatical analyser yielded just 346 of these
that would make sense in English.

A cursory human scan of the 346 removed unlikely contenders such as
acetose, leaving just seven possibilities: Ugandan, Ukrainian,
Egyptian, uninvited, incursive, indebted and unofficial. Egyptian seems
most likely, says Naccache. A similar analysis of the defence
department's memo identified South Korea as the most likely anonymous
supplier of helicopter knowledge to Iraq.

Intelligence experts say the technique is cause for concern, and that
they may think about changing procedures. One expert adds that
rumour-mongering on probable fits might engender as much confusion and
damage as just releasing the full, unadulterated text.

Naccache accepts the criticism that although the technique works
reasonably well on single words, the number of candidates for more than
two or three consecutively blotted out words would severely limit it.
Many declassified documents contain whole paragraphs blotted out.
"That's impossible to tackle," he says, adding that, "the most
important conclusion of this work is that censoring text by blotting
out words and re-scanning is not a secure practice".

Naccache and Whelan presented their results at Eurocrypt 2004, a
meeting of security researchers held in Interlaken, Switzerland, in
early May. They did not present at the formal sessions, but at a
Tuesday evening informal 'rump session', where participants discuss
work in progress. "We came away with the prize for the best
rump-session talk - a huge cow-bell," says Naccache.

(c) Nature News Service / Macmillan Magazines Ltd 2004

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