Saturday, May 13, 2006

Tracing your hidden messages and markers

There is a new commercial for KFC in which the whining sister archetype calls the gluttonous brother archetype a "sidehog". I can only imagine that the makers of the commercial and KFC are hoping to track the term "sidehog" as a way of gauging the impact of their commercial and its reach in the market. In marketing it is important to know what effect your advertising is having. Now this blog and one other have recorded this term in writing, mostly as an annoyance. Everyone wants to claim the phrase they coined. Often a neologism floats around in the oral culture for a long time before it is recorded in print. Blogging does help to bring new words to print and even provides a way to credit the first appearance. Marketers would love to use this to track the effectiveness of their craft.

It is well know that mapmakers hide mistakes in minor areas of their maps so that if they are copied they can prove that someone is doing it. These tracing mechanisms are called copyright traps. If the maps were perfect then a copy would be perfect and a dishonest mapmaker would just copy someone else's instead of doing the work to make their own. If the copy has the same mistakes as the orginal, however, a judge might draw the conclusion that there is plagerism.

The idea of using a chemical or physical marker, called a taggant, in explosives to trace where they come from, has been discussed for a number of years. The physical ones are microscopic pieces of plastic that look like flat candycanes like the picture at left. Rare chemical and even DNA have been suggested as chemical markers. The idea is that the tag will lead to the source of the explosives and the criminals when the explosives in a terrorist attack or crime. Switzerland actually requires the use of these taggants. One concern with this idea is that legal uses of the explosives (construction, mining) will also spread taggants around and contaminate crime scenes before the fact. Additionally some terrorists use homemade explosives and get around the issue completely.

Another tracing mechanism is Steganography, in which a digital tag is placed hidden in the information in a picture. There are programs that allow you to hide text and even other pictures in the digital picture file. There was a scare that criminals could use this method to transmit messages, but a recent survey(.pdf of paper) of 2 million images from eBay showed only 17,000 pictures with evidence of steganography, though even these are suggested to be false positives. I could imagine a marketing firm using this tool to track popular images or mp3's downloaded from a website. For fun we could all start putting steganographic content (web-based application) in our images (here's one, this post may contain another - a prize for the first to find one, use the comments to claim it) just to freak everyone out.

RFID tags are the obvious way to track everything physical, even though their cost currently constricts their use. Hidden as they may sometimes be in the new shirt you buy (until the itching drives you mad and you find it and cut it out), the physicality of an RFID tag makes their use in secret tracking use until they are further miniaturized.

I am sure you have noticed, sometimes at work, sometimes electronically on the internet, that a question you ask comes back to you. You begin your search by asking around the office for a particular bit of information. Your helpful colleagues ask others to try to track down the info. Eventually the question comes back to you because someone associated you with the topic and you slowly become thought of as an expert but lost is the fact that you originally asked the question. It is a sociological Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, where the observer disrupts the experiment.

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The Virtual Ranger said...

What a fascinating idea! I love the idea of the 'tracer marketing meme’ - it's very William Gibson; brands and hi-tech surveillance. Always fun to see such a concept in the wild. You certainly do dig up the most intriguing data, and this is no exception. Secret messages, huh? This makes me feel like a secret agent... and that was fun.

Richard Koehler said...

The Virtual Ranger wins the prize for figuring out the secret messages steganographically placed in the pictures in this post. many thanks for his faithful readership.