60 Years of form
1997: Web Design und Datenschutz – Aesthetics of Surveillance

Text: Gong Szeto

Nº 160

1997

p. 32

How can information in the florid Wide Web be protected? Former hackers developed the Network Flight Recorder (NFR), a safety program; i/o 360°, the New York multimedia studio, created a fitting image. Gong Szeto, creative partner of New York-based digital design firm i/o 360°, describes the corporate design of NFR.

 

Although data is inherently meaningless, its interpretation results in valuable information. It is this information that needs to be managed and protected in the connected network environment. Here, territory has to be defended.

In most cases, accessibility is determined by one’s privileges or status. This power structure is the determining factor in the design of most network security mechanisms. If knowledge is power, then the knowledge, to navigate through layers of encryption, password protection, and arcane protocols is all the more powerful and the holders of it feel magnanimous. Hackers attack, network administrators defend and monitor. It is this psychological dimension which imbues the network environment with one of political fiefdoms – and the one with the best means of aggression or defense wins the day. Billions of dollars are spent on this premise alone. In an increasingly networked world, the task of fine-tuning technology, infrastructures and complex information systems to one another’s needs is becoming ever more important, as is that of protecting them.

The exponential growth of the Internet has resulted in an unprecedented number of people using the on-line medium for a variety of purposes – research, entertainment, commerce, or education.

More and more, people’s Iives and careers depend on the integrity and accessibility of these information technology structures. The misuse of networks and the data moving in them can thus be fatal.



 

Design and the protection of data

The act of design always presupposes a set of unresolved conditions within a given context. More mundane considerations can be governed by development schedules, the tyranny of economic constraints, and the unpredictable whim of the client.

At an abstract level, design decisions can be offset by cultural biases, aesthetic ideologies, and perhaps the, hegemony of marketplace expectations, even legal stipulations. Finally, there is the level of common physical realities.

In addition, each design discipline carries a time-bound tradition of sensitivity to the manifold contexts within which designers practice their craft. This given set of inescapable parameters creates the ever-shifting crucible upon which we begin the work of designing network environments given their specific conditions.

 

 

Network access and security

Users typically access the network through their desktop computers and are connected to local area networks, usually a part of some corporate, educational, or governmental organization. These LAN’s in turn are connected together by communication interfaces with other networks and/or the public Internet itself.

The gateway into this network is usually a log-in screen, comprised of text prompts where the host computer requests identification and authentication of the person logging on.

It is this simple process of proving to a system that one’s identity is indeed what it claims to be. That allows access to databases in remote locations. The very foundation of network security lies here, as does accordingly liability to abuse.

Cryptography has evolved as a science dedicated entirely to the development of systems of encryption and decryption of network structures such as security systems.

Non-public databases can be enclosed in various different ways. Inclusion of a system generates precisely an interest in unauthorized access and triggers expertise in the development of methods of penetrating enclosed networks, i.e. hacking.

For example, computer hackers of the insidious kind may use techniques such as Trojan Horses to create a benign log-in screen that resembles exactly the log-in screen the authorized user regularly passes, but in actuality is a program running for the sole purpose of capturing the user’s keystroke sequence and thus recording the authorizing password. The experienced hacker can break into a system and wreak whatever havoc he deems fit – reading private e-mails, planting computer viruses, digging through sensitive information databases, pulling financial records, credit card numbers, or expensive software. Whatever is digital and lurks behind the security mechanism is fair game. The network creates new scope for criminal activities – whatever can occur in the natural world can occur in the digital.

How to prevent an unwelcome visit? A new program promises protection. The Network Flight Recorder, NFR for short, is software written by some of the foremost experts in computer security. Being legendary ‘hackers’ themselves (they could theoretically hack into any system they choose), their entrepreneurial spirit and benign ethics prompted them to create software that any network administrator may use to monitor network processes and events.

The function of the Network Flight Recorder resembles that of a black box on an airplane, enabling you to trace any activities on a network. Real-time data, axial histogram visualizations, intelligent filters, and infinite configurability to a myriad of network situations, are the lexicon of the Network Flight Recorder’s feature set.



 

Aesthetic elements

The design of NFR’s corporate identity, marketing materials, and software user interface needed to reflect the network security designer’s need for efficiency, clarity, and immediacy.

The aesthetic substrate of network computing is simple and pure text-based command-line interaction in a UNIX-environment. The challenges were to design a minimal set of solutions to their communications problems, but to also imbue the designs with clarity, humor, and universality. Since NFR is a virtual company, their Web site becomes their virtual head office, and knowing the mindset of their target audience – other network hackers and administrators – was essential to a successful package.

The promotional materials were thus elegant parodies on today’s media hype over the persona of the computer hacker, while maintaining the integrity of NFR’s trustworthy identity.

 

 

Command line computing

The computer hacker’s ‘aesthetic’ world is reductionist at best. These individuals have extremely complex cognitive maps and do not require sophisticated graphics to guide them in their tasks or goals. Theirs is still a world of pure ASCH text and command-line computing, in many ways, graphics simply get in the way of subversive or clandestine acts.

Therefore, hacking does not entail friendly user interfaces. ASCH text will always be the core method of reproducing Western characters in a terminal window, and therefore is considered a kind of archetypal lexicon for computing and visualizing data and information.

This purity is overlaid with fancy graphical user interfaces and thousands of custom fouls and typefaces, but network computing’s underlying form will always be the command-line dialogue between human and computer, be it the machine on one’s desktop, or a machine on the other side of the world.

In designing for erstwhile hackers who have commercial interests, the alphanumeric aesthetics they so prefer must be presented in such a manner that they feel it is addressing precisely them, and yet the graphic elements must likewise be readily understandable for all other users.

Utilizing transportation iconography as motifs throughout their designs blends the abstract world of bits and bytes with the universal idiom of the abstracted humanoid.

Other motifs, like references to graphs, charts, tables of data, suggest the scientific and quantitative dimension to their endeavors. The linearity and light blend of type and lines, suggest the efficiency and precision of modern computation.

As you can see, the means and opportunities afforded by the near media enable humans to continue the time-honored tradition of territorialism. The claims to property they make or visualize simply encourage others to try and subvert such ownership.

Gong Szeto is a graphic designer and partner in the i/o 360° agency, New York.

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Simulation

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