DURING a commencement speech given at the 2005 Stanford University graduation ceremony, Apple’s iconic co-founder Steve Jobs had remarked, “If I had never dropped out [of college], I would have never dropped in on this calligraphy class, and personal computers might not have the wonderful typography that they do today”.

While the tech visionary marvelled at the beautiful calligraphy he found on posters spread across campus at Reed College as a student, current power brokers in Pakistan, do not share his fascination with serif and sans serif typefaces.

It just so happens that after evading — or braving — decades of corruption charges, Pakistan’s first family is learning a bitter lesson about graphic design.

Caught in the midst of a money laundering scandal, the future of the prime minister’s government could partly hinge on the use of a previously little known Microsoft typeface called Calibri, which rocketed into font notoriety when news broke of its use on a document central to the Panama investigation. While the document purportedly dates from 2006, Calibri only became commercially available in 2007.

Font-fed forgery is nothing new.

Times New Roman, as early adapters of the Windows-based computers ought to remember, was the default font on Microsoft’s Office Suite of software for personal computers. The 2007 version of the said software got a facelift in the form of a new interface and the ‘C’ family of fonts: Cambria, Constantia, Consolas, Corbel, Candara — and of course Calibri as the default font, a fact novice forgers may have overlooked when manipulating time-sensitive documents.

While the Panama scandal could possibly rewrite the rules of accountability of the rich and powerful, contrary to popular belief, font-fed forgery is nothing new.

In 2012, the Turkish government indicted over 300 military personnel for conspiring to overthrow the government by means of a coup. The accusations were levelled in the form of a document dating back to 2003 composed in ‘C’ family typefaces, and, therefore, couldn’t have been produced in 2003.

The Turkish military had long dictated the ground rules for democratic politics, and the trial was considered a milestone in that it put the Islamist government and the military establishment on a collision course.

Evidently, prosecutors discovered CDs that detailed the army’s master plan to destabilise the newly elected government and eventually dislodge it from power. According to the information gleaned from the CDs, Gen Cetin Dogan, commander of the Istanbul-based First Army, was about to set in motion an operation that would see two mosques decimated and Armenian intellectuals assassinated to lay the groundwork for the coup. Lists of journalists and politicians to be arrested had allegedly been prepared along with nominations for a new cabinet that would take over in the aftermath.

This is where Microsoft’s Calibri once again played a key role.

At the heart of the prosecution lay a document titled Operation Sledgehammer. This detailed the military takeover plan with Gen Dogan’s signature underneath along with a December 2002 date. Furthermore, the document was created using the Arial font and was saved in the Word 2007 format, both widely used in 2003.

During investigation, forensic experts examined the document more closely with a Hex editor (a file that shows binary information) and made the startling discovery that the metadata contained within the file had been tampered with. Further, the metadata contained a reference to the Calibri typeface as the default font for Office 2007. The only logical explanation was that the file had been originally created on Word 2007 before being saved in an earlier format of Word.

It thus became apparent that the document may have been created with the intention of framing the military officers on trial and could not have been created and saved onto a disc in 2003.

What’s shocking is that in spite of tangible evidence, the verdict saw the court discard this temporal displacement and charge the accused anyway.

Similarly, the infamous Killian documents which purportedly showed that the 43rd president of the United States, George W. Bush, was unfit for service with the Air National Guard in the early ’70s, were ostensibly drafted with a typewriter in 1973. The documents, however, incorporated proportional fonts and curly quotes — a feature missing from vintage 1973 typewriters — therefore making it likely the documents were forged.

Despite the evident tampering, both CBS and journalist Dan Rather presented the document as authentic on an episode of 60 Minutes. The scandal that resulted led to the firing of several CBS personnel, while others were asked to resign.

The Panama scandal is yet to see any resignations or punishments. But if it does, PML-N opponents may owe a debt of gratitude to something as trivial as a font.

The writer is a researcher.

Twitter: @fahadamalik

Published in Dawn, July 23rd, 2017

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