Veritas News – (Eng) The Art and Science of Covered Writing

Veritas News Service Exclusive

and CAJI Exclusive


by The Ghost

The Art and Science of Covered Writing

Many of you listeners were so intrigued with our rebroadcast of the HOTT Exclusive audio series on

“The Art and Science of Covered Writing”,

that we are reposting our VNS Exclusive from May 2010 for your study and research!

Steganography, also known as “steg” or “stego”, is the art and science of transmitting hidden messages in such a way that only the sender and intended recipient(s) are aware of the existence of the message. The word “steganography” is of Greek origin and literally means “covered writing”. It includes a vast array of methods of communication that conceal the existence of a hidden message. Among these methods are invisible inks, microdots, character arrangements, digital signatures, covert channels and spread-spectrum communications. Steganography is closely linked to cryptography, the science of writing in secret codes. Cryptography is intended to make a message unreadable by a third party but does not hide the existence of the message itself. Cryptography addresses all of the elements necessary for secure communication over an insecure channel, namely privacy, confidentiality, key exchange, authentication, and non-repudiation. But cryptography does not always provide safe communication. That is where steganography comes in. The advantage of steganography over basic cryptography is that hidden messages do not attract attention to themselves. Plainly visible encrypted messages – no matter how unbreakable – will arouse suspicion. Therefore, in contrast to cryptography, which protects only the contents of a message, steganography protects both the message and the communicating parties. Steganography is not intended to replace cryptography but to supplement it. Hiding a message with stego methods reduces the chance of a message being detected. However, if that message is also encrypted, if discovered it must also be cracked. This produces an additional layer of protection.

Origins and History

The first recorded use of the term “steganography” appeared circa 1499 A.D. in a set of books penned by a monk named Johannes Trithemius, one of the founders of modern cryptography. His three volume work Steganographia describes an extensive system for concealing secret messages within innocuous texts and contains various ciphers including hidden messages concealed in long invocations of the names of angels. On its surface, the book appears to be a text about magic, and the initial reaction in the 16th century was so strong that Steganographia was only circulated privately until publication in 1606. Almost 500 years later, in 1998, a mathematician at AT&T Labs deciphered mysterious codes in the third volume and, rather than a treatise on demonology, the work is now regarded as the first book-length treatment of cryptography in Europe.

Although the term “steganography” was only coined at the end of the 15th century, its use dates back several millennia. One of the first documents describing what is now known as steganography is from the Histories of Herodotus. In ancient Greece, text was often written on wax covered tablets. As the story goes, Demeratus wanted to warn Sparta that Xerxes intended to invade Greece. To avoid capture, he scraped the wax off of some tablets and wrote a message on the underlying wood. He then covered the tablets with wax again and inscribed an innocent message on the wax. The tablets appeared to be harmless so they easily passed inspection by the sentries. Herodotus also reports another ingenious example of this ancient art. Histaeus, ruler of Miletus, wanted to send a message to his friend Aristagorus, urging revolt against the Persians. Histaeus shaved the head of his most trusted slave and tattooed a message on the slave’s scalp. After the hair grew back, the slave was sent on his way with the message safely hidden. Upon arrival, Aristagorus re-shaved the slave’s head, revealing the message.

The Spartans, the legendary warriors of ancient Greece, are said to be among the first to use steganography. They used a device known as a skytale which consisted of a strap of leather wrapped around a piece of wood. The Spartans would write a secret message on the leather and then un-wrap it and send it to a recipient. The recipient would then need a similar piece of wood to re-wrap the leather around to decipher the message.

It has been said that Julius Caesar was the first to use a letter substitution code to send military communications using a method which became known as a Caesar Cipher. Caesar would use plain letters and substitute those letters with another letter 3 down in the alphabet. For example, A would become D and F would become I, etc.

One of the more well-known forms of secret writing involves the use of invisible inks. Invisible inks have been in use for centuries and were used with much success as recently as World War II. An innocent-looking letter may contain a very different message written between the lines. Early in WWII, steganographic technology consisted almost exclusively of invisible inks. Common sources for invisible inks are milk, vinegar, fruit juices and urine. All of these darken when heated. With the improvement of technology and the ease of decoding these invisible inks, more sophisticated inks have been developed which react to various chemicals. Some messages have to be “developed” much as photographs are developed with a number of chemicals in processing labs.

Microdots and microfilm came about after the invention of photography. As message detection improved, new technologies were developed which could pass more information and be even less conspicuous. In both world wars, the Germans used microdots to hide information, a technique which FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover referred to as “the enemy’s masterpiece of espionage.” Microdots are photographs the size of a printed period having the clarity of standard-sized typewritten pages. The first microdots were discovered masquerading as a period on a typed envelope carried by a German agent in 1941. The message was not hidden, nor encrypted. It was just so small as to not draw attention to itself (at least for a while). Besides being so small, microdots permitted the transmission of large amounts of data including drawings and photographs.

In contemporary terms, steganography has evolved into a digital strategy of hiding information in some form of multimedia, such as an image, an audio file (like a .wav or mp3) or even a video file. With these new techniques, a hidden message is indistinguishable from white noise. Even if the message is suspected, there is no proof of its existence. To actually prove there was a message, and not just randomness, the code needs to be cracked. This feature of modern stego provides “plausible deniability.”


Like many security tools, stego can be used for a variety of reasons. It can be used to watermark images for reasons such as copyright protection. Digital watermarks (also known as fingerprinting, significant especially in copyrighting material) are similar to steganography in that they are overlaid in files, which appear to be part of the original file and are thus not easily detectable by the average person. Stego can also be used to maintain the confidentiality of valuable information, to protect the data from possible sabotage, theft, or unauthorized viewing. And, of course, stego can be used for covert communication and espionage.

The Basics

Generally, steganographic messages will appear to be something else: images, articles, shopping lists, or some other covertext, including the concealment of information within computer files. In digital steganography, electronic communications may include steganographic coding inside of a transport layer, such as a document file, image file, program or protocol. Media files are ideal for steganographic transmission because of their large size. As a simple example, a sender might start with an innocuous image file and adjust the color of every 100th pixel to correspond to a letter in the alphabet, a change so subtle that someone not specifically looking for it is unlikely to notice it.

The steganography process involves placing a hidden message in a transport medium, called the carrier. The payload is the data to be covertly communicated. In digital steganography, the carrier is the signal, stream, or data file into which the payload is hidden. The carrier differs from the channel, which refers to the type of input, such as a JPEG image. The resulting signal, stream, or data file which has the payload encoded into it is sometimes referred to as the package, stego file, or covert message. The percentage of bytes, samples, or other signal elements which are modified to encode the payload is referred to as the encoding density and is typically expressed as a number between 0 and 1. In a set of files, those files considered likely to contain a payload are called suspects. If the suspect was identified through some type of statistical analysis, it might be referred to as a candidate. The use of a stego key may be employed for encryption of the hidden message and/or for randomization in the stego scheme.

Stego can be used to great effect in written or printed documents. First, a message (the plaintext) is encrypted by traditional means, producing a ciphertext. Then, an innocuous covertext is modified in some way so as to contain the ciphertext, resulting in the stegotext. For example, the letter size, spacing, typeface, or other characteristics of a covertext can be manipulated to carry the hidden message. Only a recipient who knows the technique used can recover the message and decrypt it. (Sir Francis Bacon developed Bacon’s Cipher using this technique.)

Steganographic Techniques

? Technical steganography uses scientific methods to hide a message, such as the use of invisible ink or microdots and other size-reduction methods.

? Linguistic steganography hides the message in the carrier in a clandestine way and is further categorized as semagrams or open codes.

Semagrams hide information by the use of symbols or signs. A visual semagram uses innocent-looking or everyday physical objects to convey a message, such as doodles or the positioning of items on a desk or Website. A text semagram hides a message by modifying the appearance of the carrier text, such as subtle changes in font size or type, adding extra spaces, or different flourishes in letters or handwritten text.

Open codes hide a message in a legitimate carrier message in ways that are not obvious to an unsuspecting observer. The carrier message is sometimes called the overt communication, whereas the hidden message is the covert communication. This category is subdivided into jargon codes and covered ciphers.

Jargon code, as the name suggests, uses language that is understood by a group of people but is meaningless to others. Jargon codes include war-chalking (symbols used to indicate the presence and type of wireless network signal, underground terminology, or an innocent conversation that conveys special meaning because of facts known only to the speakers. A subset of jargon codes is cue codes, where certain pre-arranged phrases convey meaning.

Covered or concealment ciphers hide a message openly in the carrier medium so that it can be recovered by anyone who knows the secret for how it was concealed. A grille cipher employs a template that is used to cover the carrier message. The words that appear in the openings of the template are the hidden message. A null cipher hides the message according to some pre-arranged set of rules, such as “read every fifth word” or “look at the third character in every word.”

While digital steganography is a modern invention, physical and linguistic steganography have been widely used throughout history and continue to be used today. Possible variations are virtually endless. The following are some known examples:

• Hidden messages within wax tablets. As noted, this technique can be traced to ancient Greece, where messages were written on wood, which was then covered with wax upon which an innocent covering message was written. The hidden tattoo technique has also been mentioned.

• The ancient Chinese wrote messages on silk and encased them in balls of wax. The wax ball (or “la wan”) could then be hidden inside a messenger’s body.

• In WWII, the French Resistance sent messages written on the backs of couriers using invisible ink.

• Hidden messages written on paper with secret inks, under other messages or on blank parts of other messages. A classical example is a regular letter with secret messages written in between the lines with invisible ink.

• Messages written in Morse code by tying knots in knitting yarn and then knitting the yarn into a piece of clothing worn by a courier.

• Messages written on the back of postage stamps.

• Microdots. As previously discussed, during and after World War II, espionage agents used photographically produced microdots to send information back and forth. Microdots were typically minute, less than the size of the period produced by a typewriter.

• Sign language. In 1968, crew members of the USS Pueblo intelligence ship held as prisoners by North Korea communicated in sign language during staged photo opportunities, informing the United States they were not defectors but rather were being held captive by the North Koreans. In other photos presented to the U.S., crew members gave “the finger” to the unsuspecting North Koreans in an attempt to discredit photos that showed them smiling and comfortable. In Vietnam, prisoners at the infamous Hanoi Hilton communicated messages on camera through Morse Code by blinking their eyes. Some argue that the U.S. Marine Corps Navajo code talkers of WWII represent a form of steganography. The messages themselves weren’t encrypted; the plaintext was right there in the open, just in a language that was unknown by the Japanese.

One common form of stego is called a null cipher. In this type of cipher, the real message is “camouflaged” in an innocent-sounding cover message. The hidden message is formed by taking the first (or other fixed) letter of each word in the cover message. An example of a message containing a null cipher is:

Fishing freshwater bends and saltwater coasts rewards anyone feeling stressed. Resourceful anglers usually find masterful leapers fun and admit swordfish rank overwhelming anyday.

Taking the third letter in each word produces the hidden message: Send lawyers, guns, and money. Null ciphers can also be used to hide ciphertext, as part of a more complex system.

Another form of stego involves a template (for example, a piece of paper with holes cut in it) or a set of preselected locations on the page to hide a message. When using templates, the sender and receiver must each use the same template or rules to decode the cipher. Variations of the template method include pinpricks in maps to use as an overlay for relevant letters in messages, deliberate misspelling to mark words in the message, and use of small changes in spacing to indicate significant letters or words in a hidden message. In the case of the Spartan skytale, the template was a specially shaped stick.

On the Internet, spam is a potential carrier medium for hidden messages. Short text messages can be converted into a text block that looks like typical spam, which is generally ignored and discarded. When one considers that messages could be encrypted steganographically in e-mail messages, particularly e-mail spam, the notion of junk e-mail takes on a whole new light. Coupled with a technique known as “chaffing and winnowing,” a sender could get messages out and cover their tracks all at once.

Digital Steganography

As an increasing amount of data is stored on computers and transmitted over networks, it is not surprising that stego has entered the digital age. On computers and networks, stego applications allow for someone to hide any type of binary file in any other binary file, although image and audio files are today’s most common carriers.

Modern steganography entered the world in 1985 with the advent of the personal computer applied to classical steganographic problems. Development following that was slow, but has since taken off. There are hundreds of steganographic programs currently available, ranging from free downloads to commercial products.

Digital steganography techniques include:

• Concealing hidden messages within image and sound files.

• Concealing data within encrypted data or within random data. The data to be concealed is first encrypted before being used to overwrite part of a much larger block of encrypted data or a block of random data (an unbreakable cipher like the “one-time pad” generate ciphertexts that look perfectly random if you don’t have the private key).

• Mimic functions convert one file to have the statistical profile of another. This can thwart statistical methods that help brute-force attacks identify the right solution in a ciphertext-only attack.

• Pictures embedded in video material (optionally played at slower or faster speed).

• Injecting imperceptible delays to packets sent over the network from the keyboard. Delays in keypresses in some applications (telnet or remote desktop software) can mean a delay in packets, and the delays in the packets can be used to encode data.

• “Chaffing and winnowing.” This technique consists of adding false packets to a message at the source (sender end of the circuit), and then removing the false packets at the destination (receiver end). The false packets obscure the intended message and render the transmission unintelligible to anyone except authorized recipients.

• “Content-Aware Steganography” hides information in the semantics a human user assigns to a datagram. These systems offer security against a non-human adversary or “warden”.

• “Blog-Steganography”. Messages are fractionalized and the (encrypted) pieces are added as comments of orphaned web-logs (or pin boards on social network platforms). In this case the selection of blogs is the symmetric key that sender and recipient are using; the carrier of the hidden message is the whole blogosphere.

• “Steganophony” is the concealment of messages in Voice-over-IP conversations, for example in delayed or corrupted packets normally ignored by the receiver, or in unused header fields. There are several characteristics of sound that can be altered in ways that are indiscernible to human senses, and these slight alterations, such as tiny shifts in phase angle, speech cadence, and frequency, can transport hidden information.

Digital Image and Audio

Many common digital stego techniques employ graphical images or audio files as the carrier medium. Special tools or skills to hide messages in digital files using variances of a null cipher are not necessary. An image or text block can be hidden under another image in a PowerPoint file, for example. Text files can be secretly embedded in ordinary image files. Messages can be hidden in the properties of a Word file. Messages can be hidden in comments in Web pages or in other formatting vagaries that are ignored by browsers. Text can be hidden as line art in a document by putting the text in the same color as the background and placing another drawing in the foreground. The recipient could retrieve the hidden text by changing its color. These are all decidedly low-tech mechanisms, but they can be very effective.

Digital Carrier Methods

There are many ways in which messages can be hidden in digital media. Digital forensics examiners are familiar with data that remains in file slack or unallocated space as the remnants of previous files, and programs can be written to access slack and unallocated space directly. Small amounts of data can also be hidden in the unused portion of file headers.

Information can also be hidden on a hard drive in a secret partition. A hidden partition will not be seen under normal circumstances, although disk configuration and other tools might allow complete access to the hidden partition. A hidden file system is particularly interesting because it protects the user from being inextricably tied to certain information on their hard drive. This form of plausible deniability allows a user to claim to not be in possession of certain information or to claim that certain events never occurred. Under this system users can hide the number of files on the drive, guarantee the secrecy of the files’ contents, and not disrupt non-hidden files by the removal of the steganography file driver.

Nevertheless, image and audio files remain the easiest and most common carrier media on the Internet because of the plethora of potential carrier files already in existence, the ability to create an infinite number of new carrier files, and the easy access to stego software that will operate on these carriers.

Cryptograms and Symbolic Philosophy

No discussion of steganography would be complete without a section devoted to the consideration of symbology. The use of ciphers has long been recognized as indispensable in military and diplomatic circles, but the modern world has overlooked the important role played by cryptography in literature and philosophy. If the art of deciphering cryptograms could be made popular, it would result in the discovery of much skill and cunning possessed by both ancient and mediæval philosophers. It would prove that many apparently verbose and rambling authors were wordy for the sake of concealing words. Ciphers are hidden in the most subtle manner: they may be concealed in the watermark of the paper upon which a book is printed; they may be bound into the covers of ancient books; they may be hidden under imperfect pagination; they may be extracted from the first letters of words or the first words of sentences; they may be artfully concealed in mathematical equations or in apparently unintelligible characters; they may be extracted from the jargon of clowns or revealed by heat as having been written in invisible ink; they may be word ciphers, letter ciphers, or apparently ambiguous statements whose meaning could be understood only by repeated careful readings; they may he discovered in the elaborately illuminated initial letters of early books or they may be revealed by a process of counting words or letters. If those interested in Freemasonic research would give serious consideration to this subject, they might find in books and manuscripts of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the information necessary to bridge the gap in Masonic history that now exists between the Mysteries of the ancient world and the Craft Masonry of the last three centuries.

The arcana of the ancient Mysteries was never revealed to the profane except through the media of symbols. Symbolism fulfilled the dual office of concealing the sacred truths from the uninitiated and revealing them to those qualified to understand the symbols. According to the priests of the Mystery Schools, “the wise pierce the veil and with clearer vision contemplate the reality; but the ignorant – unable to distinguish between the false and the true – behold a universe of symbols.” They say that Nature – whom they call “the Great Mother” – is “ever tracing strange characters upon the surface of things, but only to her eldest and wisest sons as a reward for their faith and devotion does she reveal the cryptic alphabet which is the key to the import of these tracings.”

The temples of the ancient Mysteries evolved their own sacred languages, known only to their initiates and never spoken save in the sanctuary. The “illumined” priests considered it sacrilege to discuss what they considered “the sacred truths of the higher worlds or the divine verities of eternal Nature” in the same tongue as that used by the profane. They believed that a sacred science must be couched in a sacred language. Secret alphabets were also invented, and whenever the “secrets of the wise” were committed to writing, characters meaningless to the uninformed were employed. Such forms of writing were called sacred or Hermetic alphabets. Some – such as the famous “angelic writing” – are still retained in the higher degrees of Freemasonry.

However, secret alphabets were not entirely satisfactory. Again, we return to the fundamental weakness of cryptography. Although they rendered unintelligible the true nature of the writings, their very presence disclosed the fact of concealed information – which the priests also sought to conceal. Through various means the keys to these secret alphabets were eventually acquired and the contents of the documents revealed to those the “illumined ones” considered unworthy. This necessitated employment of more subtle methods for concealment. The result was the appearance of cryptic systems of writing designed to conceal the presence of both the message and the cryptogram. Today this is known as steganography. Having thus devised a method of transmitting their secrets to posterity, the illuminati encouraged the circulation of certain documents specially prepared through incorporating into them ciphers containing the deepest secrets of mysticism and philosophy. Thus mediæval philosophers disseminated their theories throughout Europe without evoking suspicion, since volumes containing these cryptograms could be subjected to the closest scrutiny without revealing the presence of the hidden message.

During the Middle Ages scores of writers – members of secret political or religious organizations –

published books containing ciphers. Secret writing became a fad; every European court had its own diplomatic cipher, and the intelligentsia vied with one another in devising curious and complicated cryptograms. The literature of the fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth centuries is permeated with ciphers, few of which have ever been decoded. Many of the scientists and philosophers of this period dared not publish their findings, and in order to preserve the fruit of their intellectual labors, they concealed their discoveries in ciphers, trusting that future generations would eventually discover them.

Many churchmen, it is interesting to note, used cryptograms, fearing excommunication or a worse fate should their scientific researches be suspected. In spite of the rapid progress made by science in the last two hundred and fifty years, it still remains ignorant concerning many of the original discoveries made by mediæval investigators. The only record of these important findings is that contained in the cryptograms of the volumes which they published. While many authors have written on the subject of cryptography, the books most valuable to students of philosophy and religion are: Polygraphia and Steganographia by Trithemius, Abbot of Spanheim; Mercury or The Secret and Swift Messenger by John Wilkins, Bishop of Chester; and Cryptomenytices et Cryptographiæ by Gustavus Selenus.

The mystics of the Middle Ages, borrowing the terminology of the various arts and sciences, evolved a system of cryptography which concealed what they believed to be the secrets of the human soul under terms generally applied to chemistry, biology, astronomy, botany, and physiology. Ciphers of this nature can only be decoded by individuals versed in the deep philosophic principles upon which these mediæval mystics based their theories of life. Much information relating to their theories of the “invisible nature of man” is concealed under what seem to be chemical experiments or scientific speculations. Therefore, every student of symbolism and philosophy should be reasonably well acquainted with the underlying principles of cryptography. Discrimination and observation are indispensable to the seeker of knowledge, and few areas of study are equal to cryptography as a means of stimulating these powers.


An allegory called “The Prisoner’s Problem” is often used to illustrate the process of countering steganography, although it was originally introduced to describe a cryptography scenario.

The problem involves two prisoners, Alice and Bob, who are locked in separate prison cells and wish to communicate some secret plan to each other. Alice and Bob are allowed to exchange messages with each other, but William, the warden, can read all of the messages. Alice and Bob know that William will terminate the communications if he discovers the secret channel.

William can act in either a passive or active mode. In the passive warden model, William examines each message and determines whether to forward the message or not based on his ability to detect a hidden message. In the active warden model, William can modify messages if he wishes. A cautious or malicious warden might actually modify all messages in an attempt to disrupt any covert channel so that Alice and Bob would need to use a very robust stego method.

The difficulty of the warden’s task will depend largely on the complexity of the stego algorithm and the amount of the warden’s prior knowledge.

When all is said and done, even in a highly controlled environment such as a prison it is extremely difficult to counter stego communications, and in an open environment it is almost impossible. While the warden in a prison has the luxury of overseeing all communications that pass through his jurisdiction, law enforcement and security agencies in the outside world have no such access. The countermeasures available to the prison warden simply do not exist in today’s society and, although the Powers That Be are working hard to change that, they probably never will.

Asymmetric Warfare

As we have seen, steganography has many valuable applications. But ultimately it finds its true value in its oldest use, on the battlefield of information security.

Steganography is ideally suited for use by intelligence agencies, underground resistance movements, secret societies and other clandestine operatives in need of safeguarding, concealing and covertly transferring information. For example, information gathered about an adversary’s military activities or capabilities must be transmitted carefully and secretly to preserve the friendly forces’ ability to predict, counter, or neutralize them. Understanding the concept and use of stego techniques will allow intelligence operatives to maintain the confidentiality of valuable information and protect data from possible sabotage, theft and unauthorized viewing. By using stego in any form, individual operatives, organizations or government agencies may send messages to agents in the field to give them instructions or exchange information. Similarly, agents will be able to communicate back, as well as with each other, without attracting the attention of a third party. There are countless possibilities and potential variations of how this can be done. Let’s take just one example: digital steganography is perfect for an electronic dead drop.

In the FBI affidavit against infamous double agent and traitor Robert Hanssen (the former FBI chief of counter-intelligence), it explains how Hanssen communicated with his Russian handlers. They never met face-to-face. They would leave messages, money, and documents for one another in plastic garbage bags under a bridge. Hanssen’s handler would leave a signal in a public place – a chalk mark on a signpost – to indicate a waiting package. Hanssen would then collect the package.

That’s a dead drop. It has many advantages over a face-to-face meeting. One, the two parties are never seen together. Two, the two parties don’t have to coordinate a rendezvous. Three, and most importantly, one party doesn’t even have to know who the other one is (this is a definite advantage if one of them is captured). Dead drops can be used to facilitate completely anonymous, asynchronous communications. There are several ways to build a dead drop in cyberspace. For example, using steganography to embed a message in an image and posting it to a USENET newsgroup or other online forum is a cyberspace equivalent of a dead drop. To everyone else, it’s just a picture. But to the receiver, there’s a hidden message waiting to be extracted.

To make it work in practice, all that is needed is to set up some sort of coded signal. Just as Hanssen knew to collect his package when he saw the chalk mark, an operative will need to know to look for his message. Obviously he (or she) can’t be expected to search every picture. There are various ways to communicate a signal: a timestamp on the message, an uncommon word in the subject line, etc. Again, the possibilities are virtually limitless.

The effect is that the sender can transmit a message without ever communicating directly with the recipient(s). There is no e-mail between them, no remote logins, no instant messages. All that exists is a picture posted to a public forum, and then downloaded by anyone directed or enticed to do so.

Consider the following hypothetical scenario. By pre-agreement with members of an underground resistance organization, a member or leader puts an item for sale on eBay every Monday and posts a photograph of the item. The item for sale is legitimate. Bids are accepted, money is collected, and items are dutifully delivered. But at some prearranged time during the week, a version of the photograph is posted that contains a hidden message. The group members know when that time is and download the weekly message. Unless these people are under active investigation, it is doubtful that anyone will notice this activity. This scenario, or one like it, is a viable, simple and highly secure method for underground cells to communicate.


There are ways of finding steganographic messages, most of which involve looking for changes in traffic patterns. However, in the end there is very little that can be done to detect and counter stego communications. Dead drops, both real and virtual, simply cannot be prevented and law enforcement generally has absolutely no way of knowing when and where steganography has been used or the encryption algorithm that has been employed.

After the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, a number of articles appeared suggesting that terrorists were communicating through steganography. In partial response to these reports, several attempts were made to ascertain the presence of stego images on the Internet. One well-known study searched more than three million JPEG images on eBay and USENET archives. One to two percent of the images were found to be suspicious, but no hidden messages were ever recovered. Another study examined several hundred thousand images from a random set of Websites and obtained similar results. Although these projects provide a framework for searching a Website for stego images, no conclusions can be drawn from them about stego images on the Internet.

There are very few hard statistics about the frequency with which stego software or media are discovered by law enforcement officials in the course of computer forensics analysis. Anecdotal evidence suggests, however, that many computer forensics examiners do not routinely search for stego software, and many might not recognize such tools if they found them. According to a 2004 FBI report on steganography, the U.S. Department of Justice search and seizure guidelines for digital evidence “barely mention steganography” and the tools that are employed to detect stego software “are often inadequate.” Even if the presence of a hidden message was detected, recovery of the message itself adds an entirely new layer of complexity. Recovering the message would require knowledge of (or an estimate of) the message length and, possibly, an encryption key and knowledge of the crypto algorithm used to encode it. The use of numerous layers and methods of encryption in a secret communiqué present a nightmare scenario for counter-intelligence personnel.


There are an infinite number of steganography applications. So far we have only explored a tiny fraction of this ancient art. Stego pertains to a vast many forms of media; the list can go on and on and on.

The intelligence community, law enforcement agencies and the national security apparatus will no doubt continue improving their capabilities, and eventually they may succeed in developing an effective means of dealing with this issue. But for the time being, steganography is an excellent, highly secure way to communicate sensitive information and is likely to stay that way for quite some time.

From ancient Greece to modern-day America, people have had the need to hide information. Wars have been waged with the use of information concealed by the techniques we have been discussing. As information technology progresses, these techniques will continue to grow and more complex forms will develop. Ten years ago very few people knew of the term “steganography” and fewer yet knew what it would mean to society. Today anyone from a young child to a professional espionage agent can easily create a hidden file for only a select few people to view.

Digital stego encryption does not require a super-computer or a mathematical scientist to perform. If a person can run a computer with a word processor, that same person can perform advanced steganography. There are many good reasons for hiding and securing information. Regardless of the motivation, the technology is easy to use and difficult to detect. The more that you know about its features and functionality, the more ahead you will be in the game. Your future, and the future of freedom, may depend on it.

Also see this previous HOTT news post concerning such use: FBI: Spies Hid Secret Messages on Public Websites

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