Turn up the volume – new secret messaging system hides in “noise”

Researchers find a new way to keep prying eyes off your messages, using a method named after a stadium horn.

You may not be familiar with the name “vuvuzela.” But you may remember its sound.

Fans at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa blasted the plastic stadium horns so loudly that some TV viewers couldn’t hear the commentary on the games.

Noise is the tool as well for researchers at MIT, who say they have harnessed it to make your communication on the Internet anonymous, according to the university.

Researchers said they can bury your messages under a barrage of “dummy messages,” creating what they call “noise,” preventing spies, hackers and adversaries from peeking in on your digital life.

For more detailed information on how Vuvuzela works, see this from Net Security and this from The Verge.

One note ahead

A cybersecurity expert says Vuvuzela is a good example of “security leapfrogging.”

“As the bad actors are able to compromise current technology barriers, the good guys build something better to address the bad acting,” said Stacy Bresler of Archer Security Group. “And so the story continues until the end of time.”

Bresler said although the algorithm the researchers are using for Vuvuzela is most likely not subject to cracking right now, it could potentially be cracked in the future.

“Nonetheless, this is ingenious,” said Bresler.

The sound of controversy

The stadium horn after which the untraceable text messaging system is named is controversial.

Some stadiums and malls have banned the ear-blasting vuvuzela instrument inside. Some sports authorities said unruly fans could use them as weapons and organizations might use them as tools for “ambush marketing.”

Cybersecurity experts say the Vuvuzela messaging system may also be controversial.

“Well, the NSA (National Security Agency) and the FBI will really dislike this service,” said Patrick Coyle of Chemical Facility Security News. “Not only will it provide end-to-end encryption that would make reading the messages very difficult, but it will also eliminate the metadata that the intelligence folks use to keep track of who the ‘bad guys’ are talking to.”

Coyle said he understands there are people who have a legitimate need to keep their communications private. 

“But, it will be nearly impossible to keep this technology out of the hands of the people that the law enforcement and intelligence community have a legitimate interest in the tracking and interception of their communications,” he said. 

“Noise” for good or evil?

The debate continues over the use of the stadium horn. And over technological advances like the stadium horn’s messaging-system namesake.

“What isn’t clear is where the line is drawn between globally beneficial privacy protections and privacy protections that potentially aid in criminal activity,” said Bob Beachy with Archer Security Group.

Beachy said the development of these systems can be viewed in multiple ways.

“If a company can find an innovative way to protect health care and banking information from prying eyes, it would be universally praised,” explained Beachy. “If a company helps to promote freedom of speech under an oppressive regime, it may be praised as well.”

But he added, “When you take the technologies developed for those purposes and then repurpose them for illicit activities, such as laundering money or coordinating attacks on innocent people, there is a completely different shadow cast upon the situation.”  

Some experts say more discussion is needed.

“I think most people can see the pros and cons argued by both sides and find things they agree with,” said Beachy. “We like to think of the Internet today as a more reformed beast than it once was, but we are still in the Wild West with regard to the ethics and appropriate restrictions of Information Technology.”