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Security through Obscurity - New Spinout Company gives 21st Century Twist to Ancient Science

9 July 2012

The University of Ulster's newest security spin-out company, HidInImage, has secured significant funding to commercialise its digital watermarking innovations and give a 21st twist to the ancient science of steganography.

Steganography, which is the art of writing hidden messages so that only the sender and intended recipient know they exist, has been used in various guises for centuries. Researchers are still looking - and finding - additional information hidden within the hieroglyphics of the Egyptian pyramids, and even in Michelangelo’s depictions of human anatomy within the ceiling paintings of the Sistine Chapel.

Now, thanks to their latest innovation in image processing technology, Ulster academics at the Intelligent Systems Research Centre at the University's Magee campus have developed a way to conceal and retrieve information from within digital computer files.

The work has been led by Dr Joan Condell and Dr Kevin Curran.According to Dr Condell, digital watermarking is a well-known technology that can be used to hide personal or sensitive data in security in digital imagery.

"However the watermarking technique that we have developed is significantly more impervious to image and data compression than any previously known methods. This means that the encoded image can be copied and moved around without losing the hidden information."

She adds: “Our watermarks cannot be seen by the human eye but they can be identified and decoded by our algorithms alone: hence the name HidInImage."

The team at Magee have international patents pending for the HidInImage technology. Professor Paul Mc Kevitt, holder of the patents along with Dr Condell and Dr Curran, observes that the prevalence of digital technology has resulted in a lot of information moving around rather quickly.

He says: "With society so dependent on computer technology, providing additional ways of authentication and verification to improve security can only be of immense value.”

Taking the technology from lab to spinout has been led by Dr John MacRae from University of Ulster's Office of Innovation. He says one of the most compelling aspects of this technology is its wide range of applications - you could be selling it to a farmer one day and the next day to a bank.

HidInImage has so many different applications that the challenge for the new spinout company is knowing where to start as the technology is as applicable to hiding pedigree and visual cues on cattle tags as a deterrent to rustling, as it is to ensuring the provenance of legal or confidential documents in an important business transaction.

Dr MacRea adds that the new company - which has the potential to employ up to five highly skilled graduates – will be looking for local partners with a thorough knowledge and understanding of other markets to licence the technology developed by HidInImage.

This go-to-market methodology is endorsed by Professor Hugh McKenna, Ulster's Pro Vice Chancellor Research and Innovation.

He says: "Our ambition is for the high quality research and development work ongoing at University of Ulster to assist local businesses to grow and thrive. HidInImage presents a great opportunity for this objective; it can really add something innovative and cutting edge to business."

One of the first local licensees to sign up is Tribus Ltd, who specialise in the management and security of workflow, particularly in law enforcement and industrial workplaces such as oil and gas and heavy engineering. Tribus are assessing the utility of HidInImage as a authenication tool for a number of their clients within these complex environments.

HidInImage initial investment has been received from the Ulster Innovation Fund, part of the Northern Ireland Spin Out Funds, managed by E-Synergy Ltd.

Further details can be obtained from Dr Kevin Curran

Caption: Dr John MacRae, University of Ulster Technology Commercialisation Manager, Dr Kevin Curran, Reader, Professor Paul Mc Kevitt, Professor of Digital Multimedia, Pratheepan Yogarajah, Research Associate, HidInImage Ltd. andDr Joan Condell at the launch of HidInImage, the University of Ulster's newest security spin out company.