Meet James: He's encrypting digital secrets in ‘chicken scratch’

March 19, 2019

Even as an undergraduate, James is pioneering research in a field that’s only a few years old.

He’s hiding digital messages using a newly emerging computer science technique called steganography. He liked the idea of messages “hiding in plain sight,” so he decided to test out his own take on that: encrypting codes into regular-looking handwriting.

“The idea of just taking normal data, like an image that looks like a cat, then trying to hide other data into it, like picture of an elephant — initially, it was actually weird to think about," he said. "But there are a lot of recent advancements that make it possible.”

He started working on his project through a UHC Research Fellowship, which he’s continuing to build into a thesis for his BPhil degree (the highest academic honor for undergraduates, which has the rigor and distinction of a Master’s Degree).

Part of the reason he chose this project is because he wanted to try something totally new to him. 

“Software engineering can get tedious, so I wanted an opportunity to do interesting work that changes all the time,” he said. “Encryption isn’t covered much in my classes, so it’s interesting to see how it’s even done.”  

He said it’s been a fun challenge, but also eye-opening.

“There's so many ways you can screw up the algorithm, it's absurd!” he laughed. “I’ve had to restart 3 or 4 times. It’s just the actuality of research. Not everything is going to run smoothly, but it helps me be a little more patient.”

Now, he's also digging into a totally different aspect of cutting-edge computer science: more on the psychology side of social computing and digital reasoning. He hopes to keep exploring new innovations, so he can find a career that's “maybe half software engineering ... but also half exploration.”