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Defeat “Print Screen” with Visual Cryptography

padlockTime for some summer fun! Someone asked in the delphi win32 [1] newsgroup how to prevent users from doing a “Print Screen”. The answer to that is that you can’t really, since screen capture can be invoked from other applications, or your app can be hosted in a Virtual Machine, accessed over RDP, or a frame can be grabbed directly from the screen cable.

However all hope is not lost! Even if you can’t defeat a “Print Screen” or screen capture, it’s possible to make such a capture useless.

Defeating any casual PrintScreen

Any worthy accomplishment requires sacrifices, and this one is no different. Assuming inducing end-user headaches or epileptic seizures is acceptable, you can defeat any single casual “Print Screen”, screen capture or frame grab with the help of visual cryptography [2] and retinal persistence [3].

The trick is that a “Print Screen” will capture exactly what’s on the screen at a given time, so if you ensure that at any time, you only have random noise on the screen, then the screen capture is possible, but useless as only random noise will be captured. This is where visual cryptography comes in.

The idea is to generate two (or more) images that will individually be random noise, with no information as to the content they crypt, and when combined the information becomes visible again.


Classic Visual Cryptography

Visual cryptography does it by superposing two (or more) transparent slides (see the wikipedia article [2] for details), and using transparency, that approach isn’t directly applicable to our “Print Screen” problem, but a variation can be devised where instead of using transparency (an “OR” operator), we’ll be using retinal persistence (an “AVERAGE” operator).

Show me the code!

To achieve that we only need to tweak slightly the Virtual Cryptography image generation, for instance the following code will take a black/white image in bmpOrig and generate two “crypted” images in bmpOne and bmpTwo:

   BoolToColor : array [False..True] of TColor = ( clBlack, clWhite );
for y := 0 to bmpOrig.Height-1 do begin
   for x := 0 to bmpOne.Width-1 do begin
      b := (Random(255) and 8) <> 0;
      bmpOne.Canvas.Pixels[x, y] := BoolToColor[b];
      if bmpOrig.Canvas.Pixels[x, y] = clWhite then
         b := not b;
      bmpTwo.Canvas.Pixels[x, y] := BoolToColor[b];

Basically the first image is pure random, the second is a variation of the first with colors flipped depending on the original image. So taken in isolations, both images are effectively random, and provide zero information about the original image (assuming your Random function is not predictable enough, which isn’t the case with Delphi’s Random [5], but let’s ignore that).

What happens in detail is that:

So White becomes perceptual Gray, and Black becomes a static White or static Black. Obviously, that’s not too pretty and will only gain you appreciation from the denizens of the MoMA [6], but that’s enough information for the eye to figure things out.

Next: What Does it Look Like? [7]

Previous: Visual Cryptography [8]

What does it look like?


Original Image

Will thus results in the following two “crypted” images





Which are only what a PrintScreen could capture if you were to flip the display madly between bmpOne and bmpTwo.

The perceptual image, assuming you were to flip at a high enough frequency will be:

Perceptual image [9]

Perceptual image, visible but never displayed

If your hardware and screen display (LCD) are fast enough, the above image is what your eyes will see. In practice, you’re more likely to have at least occasional frame skips, which will make the image flicker.

Since the technique only requires generating two images and flipping between them at high frequency, it will “work” on any platform, native apps, web apps, etc. and will defeat casual PrintScreen even when hosted in a VM or viewed over RDP.

Making it work in the real world

The key to making it work is to be able to flip fast enough between the images, preferably at each screen refresh (VSync) to minimize user discomfort. On Windows, you have access to VSync through OpenGL or DirectX, on web browsers, that’s through requestAnimationFrame [10].

When you don’t have access to VSync [11] (such as in a normal VCL app), you’ll have to use a timer, but that won’t be very precise, can be subject to stroboscopic effect [12], so may have to aim for a lower flipping frequency than theoretically possible, which will increase discomfort.

I’ve made a small SmartMS app [13] for your consumption’s, er… pleasure?

Consider yourself warned against epileptic seizures and headaches, then click on the link below, and hit Print Screen to your heart’s content!

VisualCryptoGraphy Demo [14]
http://bit.ly/vcrypto [15]

My PC and iPad don’t seem to have any trouble displaying a rather stable perceptual image. If you don’t see it working on mobile Android browsers, try touching and dragging the screen (it allows higher screen refresh rates).

As a final note, remember that this technique does not work against eye-like devices, like… cameras. It defeats PrintScreen only, and only against casual print-screeners.

As an exercise left to the astute reader, there is very simple way to decrypt with non-casual Print-screening and the help of a Paint program, but shhh! 😉