Enter the maze

Just between the two of us: mentalism and covert channels

by Peter W McOwan, Queen Mary University of London

A male mentalist. Adapted from PIXABAY.com

Secret information should stay secret. Beware 'covert channels' though. They are a form of attack where an illegitimate way of transferring information is set up. Stopping information leaking is a bit like stopping water leaking - even the smallest hole can be exploited. Magicians have been using covert channels for centuries, doing mentalism acts that wow audiences with their 'telepathic' powers.

The secret codes of Mentalism

In the 1950's Australian couple Sydney and Lesley Piddington took the entertainment world by storm. They had the nation perplexed, puzzled and entertained. They were seemingly able to communicate telepathically over great distances. It all started in World War 2 when Sydney was a prisoner of war. To keep up morale, he devised a mentalism act where he 'read the minds' of other soldiers. When he later married Lesley they perfected the act and became an overnight sensation, attracting BBC radio audiences of 20 million. They communicated random words and objects selected by the audience, even when Lesley was in a circling aeroplane or Sydney was in a diving bell in a swimming pool. To this day their secret remains unknown, though many have tried to work it out. Perhaps they used a hidden transmitter. After all that was fairly new technology then. Or perhaps they were using their own version of an old mentalism trick: a code to transmit information hidden in plain sight.

Sounds mysterious

Sydney had a severe stutter, and some suggested it was the pauses he made in words rather than the words themselves that conveyed the information. Using timing and silence to code information seems rather odd, but it can be used to great effect.

In the phone trick 'Call the wizard', for example, a member of the audience chooses any card from a pack. You then phone your accomplice. When they answer you say "I have a call for the wizard". Your friend names the card suits: "Clubs ... spades ... diamonds ... hearts". When they reach the suit of the chosen card you say: "Thanks".

Your phone friend now knows the suit and starts counting out the values, Ace to King. When they reach the chosen card value you say: "Let me pass you over". Your accomplice now knows both suit and value so dramatically reveals the card to the person you pass the phone to.

This trick requires a shared understanding of the code words and the silence between them. When combined with the background count, information is passed. The silence is the code.

Timing can similarly be used by a program to communicate covertly out of a secure network. Information might be communicated by the time a message is sent rather than its contents, for example

Codes on the table

Covert channels can be hidden in the existence and placement of things too. Here's another trick.

The receiving performer leaves the room. A card is chosen from a pack by a volunteer. When the receiver arrives back they are instantly able to tell the audience the name of the card. The secret is in the table. Once the card has been selected, pack and box are replaced on the table. The agreed code might be:

If the box is face up and its flap is closed: Clubs.
If the box is face up and its flap is open: Spades.
If the box is face down and its flap is closed: Diamonds.
If the box is face down and its flap is open: Hearts.

That's the suits taken care of. Now for the value. The performers agree in advance how to mentally chop up the card table into zones: top, middle and bottom of the table, and far right, right, left and far left. That's 3 x 4 unique locations. 12 places for 12 values. The pack of cards is placed in the correct pre-agreed position, box face up or not, flap open or closed as needed. What about the 13th possibility? Have the audience member hold their hand out flat and leave the cards on it for them to 'concentrate' on.

Again a similar idea can be used as a covert channel to subvert a security system: information might be passed based on whether a particular file exists or not, say.

Making it up as you go along

These are just a couple of examples of the clever ideas mentalists have used to amaze and entertain audiences with feats of seemingly superhuman powers. Our cs4fn mentalism portal has more. Some claim they have the powers for real, but with two dedicated performers and a lot of cunning memory work, it's often hard to decipher performers' methods. Covert channels can be similarly hard to spot.

Perhaps the Piddingtons secret was actually a whole range of different methods. Just before she died Lesley Piddington is said to have told her son, "Even if I wanted to tell you how it was done, I don't think I would be able". How ever it was done, they were using some form of covert channel to cement their place in magic history. As Sydney said at the end of each show "You be the judge".