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Hidden Meanings: Keith Winstein

A 1999 Intel finalist who worked on a better way to send secret codes is now decoding technology for the general public at The Wall Street Journal



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FINALIST YEAR: 1999

HIS FINALIST PROJECT: A way to send an encoded message without anyone knowing

WHAT LED TO THE PROJECT: In 1998 Keith Winstein, a student at the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy, had just read about a field called steganography in Tom Clancy's Patriot Games. The concept is that you can send a message in such a way that no one but the sender and recipient realizes it's being sent. This is a significant problem to solve, because the very fact of sending an encrypted message can tip off the person you're trying to hide it from that you're doing it. Throughout history, people have brainstormed ways to circumvent this issue. Examples include using invisible ink, sending normal-looking letters that contain code words or, more recently, changing the color of every 100th pixel in an image (too small to notice) so that your lawyers can tell if another Web site has lifted one of your photos.

Winstein had another idea for a form of steganography: Given the English language's redundancies—dozens of words mean "good"—could you substitute synonyms for one another as a way of burying messages? For various synonym pairs (for example, the basement was "dank" or the basement was "clammy"), one word would be assigned a binary code value of 1 whereas the other would be assigned a binary code value of 0. This binary code could be used to send information. Winstein tested the method, wrote up a paper on this "lexical steganography" (in part because "I needed something to help me get into college") and submitted it to the 1999 Intel Science Talent Search. The scheme worked. He came in third.

THE EFFECT ON HIS CAREER: Winstein was accepted at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and, after graduation, continued his studies there in the computer science and electrical engineering graduate programs. After hunting through the text of U.S. copyright law, he landed in national headlines in 2003 for helping M.I.T. launch a service that allowed students to (legally) access music over the university's cable television network. Since M.I.T. already had a blanket broadcast license for analog transmission (radio or TV) of lots of popular music, Winstein and fellow student Josh Mandel created a system whereby students could listen to broadcasts of songs they chose on their computers, rather than downloading the same music (illegally) from the Internet. Although not perfect, this Library Access to Music Project (LAMP) hinted at a way to break the impasse between the record labels and students set on listening to music when and where they wanted.

WHAT HE'S DOING NOW: Winstein's interest in text stayed with him as he worked for M.I.T.'s newspaper, The Tech, and, after a 2005 internship at The Wall Street Journal in which he landed a front-page story on the quasi-secret U.S. government plot to abolish "leap seconds," he decided to leave graduate school. He became a reporter at the Wall Street Journal's Boston bureau in early 2007. Since then, he's spent his time poring over medical research studies for the health and technology beat and generally leveraging his tech knowledge to conduct interviews and write stories in which "the experts won't think you're an idiot."

Although going from electrical engineering to journalism isn't a standard path, "I would strongly encourage other people with technical degrees to think about journalism as a career," Winstein says. "I often feel like the worst writer here, but they help you with that. And I think the public benefits from reading articles written by people with all kinds of experience."

Nearly a decade after his Intel project, Winstein says he doesn't know of anyone using his lexical steganography approach—though a good steganographer would, of course, hide his tracks. He knows for sure, though, that he's never planted hidden messages in his newspaper stories. "There's no way you could get that through the Journal's five layers of editing," he says.

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