Elliot Levin

I enjoy making things


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Secure data in pictures

This idea started as a stroke of curiosity back in year 8. Still being relatively new to programming I had an extremely limited understanding of many concepts which I chose to work with. One of many revelations came from the fact that files and data stored on disk are represented as a structured series of numbers known as bytes. And on a seemingly unrelated occurrence I had another surprise, that the data that constructed pictures stored on a computer was just an array of organized pixels which in turn consisted of bytes! And there was something very intriguing about the fact that normal files and the pixels in images were constructed of the same thing. As an an exercise to prove the above fact (to myself) I made the first iteration of this project called File to image and soon renamed to Snapshot.

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This idea stuck and I enjoyed building on it very much. One of the limitations of the V1 above was that it created the image in memory and hence had a size limit in the MBs. This turned out the be a very difficult problem to solve but became a interesting learning experience as I dived into the byte-level structure of image formatting. And for some reason I had chosen the PNG format and begun learning the basics of the png specification. After much trial and error I had produced a working implementation of of PNG streams which allowed the processing of virtually unlimited amounts of data into valid png images. Snapshot V2 was born.

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In retrospect the GB png files were not the most useful of ideas. Some time later when I aimed to make this more usable I decided to turn it into a web service. This was right about the time I went through a phase of attempting to learn how to write maintainable code. So in the pursuit of perfection I iterated the web service itself 5 or 6 times before becoming satisfied and soon later forgot about it.

Some two years later I came back to revive this project and to finally finish it. I looked through the project and I had mixed feelings about quality. Yes, I had definitely illustrated my determination to decouple fairly logical portions of code by following a strict architectural design known as many names but commonly the clean architecture. But I didn't view it as clean in the aspect of my original goal, to create maintainable code, it far was too big and complex to rather than a simple input output system. I had not matched the architecture to the system but rather the system to the architecture and it was clear that I had overlooked any value in simplicity. So I begun once again but not from scratch, I had reused the majority of the front-end user interface but rewrote most of the backend in a far simpler design, aiming to finally release this project rather than the endless pursuit of perfecting it.

And that is how I built pixelator.io, perhaps it is not perfect, but it is live and it is usable.

UPDATE: After first publishing this project I decided to post it to reddit. The post gained traction and after 900 upvotes, 16000 unique visitors and 70 comments in reply, the feedback was mixed. There seemed to be a general misconception that this was an attempt at steganography (of which I had not heard of until that point) and general negativity about the encoded pictures being just noise. In response I set about introducing the capability of encoding data in actual pictures and four days later this functionality was released. In retrospect I am very glad to have been persuaded into building this feature and the resulting service now offers both steganography (the art of hiding data) and cryptography (the art of securing data) through encoding data in pictures.

ANOTHER UPDATE: I have open sourced this project. The API which powers pixelator can be found here and the source for the website itself can be found here

Visit pixelator.io