Osama Bin Barcode
By Eric Lin, Thu Jul 01 06:45:00 GMT 2004

Once the domain of spies and terrorists, steganography -- encoding data in pictures -- is being introduced as competition to the mobile barcodes that are gaining popularity in Japan.

Using a cameraphone to capture a printed code, whether it's a one dimensional bar code or two dimensional QR code is already popular in Japan. Many popular cameraphones there now have the ability to read these codes built in to their software. Some companies, or even open source groups are looking to offer similar abilities outside Japan with projects like Semacode. Instead of building yet another kind of bar code for users to snap, companies in Japan and the US are now designing alternatives that work by hiding codes in pictures.

Both Fujitsu and Digimarc have announced new technology to encode data into color pictures. The technology isn't actually new, it's been used by cryptographers for a while, but each company has refined the process so the decoding can be accomplished on a cell phone. Each company has chosen to limit the length of the code hidden in the picture in order to simplify the computation for mobile processors.

Simplifying the embedded code doesn't just make it easier on the phones, it makes Fujitsu and Digimarc (or licensees) indispensable middlemen. For example, Fujitsu's process only encodes a 12 digit number in the picture, but like Digimarc advertises that this could represent a URL, a GPS location, or even contact information in vCard format. In order for a 12 digit code to result in that much data, the code needs to be sent to a server which can then return the appropriate data for the phone to use. This creates two revenue opportunities: licensing and serving the decoded data. QR code, like Semacode, allows for decoding of a URL on the handset itself, which only generates revenue from licensing.

Hiding a code in a picture is pretty cool for spies, but I don't think it's quite as cool for civilians. If you want a person to use something, it's to your advantage to make it as easy and as obvious as possible. Hiding codes in posters, billboards and magazine ads might make a cool treasure hunt game, but it would be a poor use of advertising budget.