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Steganography (// ( listen) STEG-ə-NOG-rə-fee) is the practice of concealing a file, message, image, or video within another file, message, image, or video. The word steganography combines the Greek words steganos (στεγανός), meaning "covered, concealed, or protected", and graphein (γράφειν) meaning "writing".
The first recorded use of the term was in 1499 by Johannes Trithemius in his Steganographia, a treatise on cryptography and steganography, disguised as a book on magic. Generally, the hidden messages appear to be (or to be part of) something else: images, articles, shopping lists, or some other cover text. For example, the hidden message may be in invisible ink between the visible lines of a private letter. Some implementations of steganography that lack a shared secret are forms of security through obscurity, and key-dependent steganographic schemes adhere to Kerckhoffs's principle.
The advantage of steganography over cryptography alone is that the intended secret message does not attract attention to itself as an object of scrutiny. Plainly visible encrypted messages, no matter how unbreakable they are, arouse interest and may in themselves be incriminating in countries in which encryption is illegal.
Whereas cryptography is the practice of protecting the contents of a message alone, steganography is concerned with concealing the fact that a secret message is being sent as well as concealing the contents of the message.
Steganography includes 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. For example, a sender might start with an innocuous image file and adjust the color of every hundredth pixel to correspond to a letter in the alphabet. The change is so subtle that someone who is not specifically looking for it is unlikely to notice the change.
The first recorded uses of steganography can be traced back to 440 BC when Herodotus mentions two examples in his Histories. Histiaeus sent a message to his vassal, Aristagoras, by shaving the head of his most trusted servant, "marking" the message onto his scalp, then sending him on his way once his hair had regrown, with the instruction, "When thou art come to Miletus, bid Aristagoras shave thy head, and look thereon." Additionally, Demaratus sent a warning about a forthcoming attack to Greece by writing it directly on the wooden backing of a wax tablet before applying its beeswax surface. Wax tablets were in common use then as reusable writing surfaces, sometimes used for shorthand.
In his work Polygraphiae Johannes Trithemius developed his so-called "Ave-Maria-Cipher" that can hide information in a Latin praise of God. "Auctor Sapientissimus Conseruans Angelica Deferat Nobis Charitas Potentissimi Creatoris" for example contains the concealed word VICIPEDIA.
Steganography has been widely used for centuries. Here are some examples:
Modern steganography entered the world in 1985 with the advent of personal computers being applied to classical steganography problems. Development following that was very slow, but has since taken off, going by the large number of steganography software available:
In communities with social or government taboos or censorship, people use cultural steganography—hiding messages in idiom, pop culture references, and other messages they share publicly and assume are monitored. This relies on social context to make the underlying messages visible only to certain readers. Examples include:
All information hiding techniques that may be used to exchange steganograms in telecommunication networks can be classified under the general term of network steganography. This nomenclature was originally introduced by Krzysztof Szczypiorski in 2003. In 2016, a first network steganography covering book was published by Mazurczyk et al. However, network information hiding was already applied in the late 1980s by Girling and Wolf. Contrary to typical steganographic methods that use digital media (images, audio and video files) to hide data, network steganography uses communication protocols' control elements and their intrinsic functionality. As a result, such methods can be harder to detect and eliminate.
Typical network steganography methods involve modification of the properties of a single network protocol. Such modification can be applied to the PDU (Protocol Data Unit), to the time relations between the exchanged PDUs, or both (hybrid methods).
Moreover, it is feasible to utilize the relation between two or more different network protocols to enable secret communication. These applications fall under the term inter-protocol steganography. Alternatively, multiple network protocols can be used simultaneously to transfer hidden information and so-called control protocols can be embedded into steganographic communications to extend their capabilities, e.g. to allow dynamic overlay routing or the switching of utilized hiding methods and network protocols.
Network steganography covers a broad spectrum of techniques, which include, among others:
Academic work since 2012 demonstrated the feasibility of steganography for Cyber-physical systems (CPS)/the Internet of Things (IoT). Some techniques of CPS/IoT steganography overlap with network steganography, i.e. hiding data in communication protocols used in CPS/the IoT. However, specific techniques hide data in CPS components. For instance, data can be stored in unused registers of IoT/CPS components and in the states of IoT/CPS actuators.
Digital steganography output may be in the form of printed documents. A message, the plaintext, may be first 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 then decrypt it. Francis Bacon developed Bacon's cipher as such a technique.
The ciphertext produced by most digital steganography methods, however, is not printable. Traditional digital methods rely on perturbing noise in the channel file to hide the message, and as such, the channel file must be transmitted to the recipient with no additional noise from the transmission. Printing introduces much noise in the ciphertext, generally rendering the message unrecoverable. There are techniques that address this limitation, one notable example being ASCII Art Steganography.
Although not classic steganography, some types of modern color laser printers integrate the model, serial number and timestamps on each printout for traceability reasons using a dot-matrix code made of small, yellow dots not recognizable to the naked eye — see printer steganography for details.
The art of concealing data in a puzzle can take advantage of the degrees of freedom in stating the puzzle, using the starting information to encode a key within the puzzle / puzzle image.
Discussions of steganography generally use terminology analogous to and consistent with conventional radio and communications technology. However, some terms appear specifically in software and are easily confused. These are the most relevant ones to digital steganographic systems:
The payload is the data covertly communicated. The carrier is the signal, stream, or data file that hides the payload, which differs from the channel, which typically means the type of input, such as a JPEG image. The resulting signal, stream, or data file with the encoded payload is sometimes called the package, stego file, or covert message. The proportion of bytes, samples, or other signal elements modified to encode the payload is called the encoding density and is typically expressed as a number between 0 and 1.
In a set of files, the files that are considered likely to contain a payload are suspects. A suspect identified through some type of statistical analysis can be referred to as a candidate.
Detecting physical steganography requires careful physical examination, including the use of magnification, developer chemicals and ultraviolet light. It is a time-consuming process with obvious resource implications, even in countries that employ many people to spy on their fellow nationals. However, it is feasible to screen mail of certain suspected individuals or institutions, such as prisons or prisoner-of-war (POW) camps.
During World War II, prisoner of war camps gave prisoners specially-treated paper that would reveal invisible ink. An article in the 24 June 1948 issue of Paper Trade Journal by the Technical Director of the United States Government Printing Office had Morris S. Kantrowitz describe in general terms the development of this paper. Three prototype papers (Sensicoat, Anilith, and Coatalith) were used to manufacture postcards and stationery provided to German prisoners of war in the US and Canada. If POWs tried to write a hidden message, the special paper rendered it visible. The US granted at least two patents related to the technology, one to Kantrowitz, U.S. Patent 2,515,232, "Water-Detecting paper and Water-Detecting Coating Composition Therefor," patented 18 July 1950, and an earlier one, "Moisture-Sensitive Paper and the Manufacture Thereof," U.S. Patent 2,445,586, patented 20 July 1948. A similar strategy issues prisoners with writing paper ruled with a water-soluble ink that runs in contact with water-based invisible ink.
In computing, steganographically encoded package detection is called steganalysis. The simplest method to detect modified files, however, is to compare them to known originals. For example, to detect information being moved through the graphics on a website, an analyst can maintain known clean copies of the materials and then compare them against the current contents of the site. The differences, if the carrier is the same, comprise the payload. In general, using extremely high compression rates makes steganography difficult but not impossible. Compression errors provide a hiding place for data, but high compression reduces the amount of data available to hold the payload, raising the encoding density, which facilitates easier detection (in extreme cases, even by casual observation).
Generally though, there are many techniques known to be able to hide messages in data using steganographic techniques. None are, by definition, obvious when users employ standard applications, but some can be detected by specialist tools. Others, however, are resistant to detection - or rather it is not possible to reliably distinguish data containing a hidden message from data containing just noise - even when the most sophisticated analysis is performed. Steganography is being used to hide cyber attacks, referred to as Stegware, and detection is therefore not an adequate defence. The only way of defeating the threat is to transform data in a way that destroys any hidden messages , a process called Content Threat Removal.
Some modern computer printers use steganography, including Hewlett-Packard and Xerox brand color laser printers. The printers add tiny yellow dots to each page. The barely-visible dots contain encoded printer serial numbers and date and time stamps.
The larger the cover message (in binary data, the number of bits) relative to the hidden message, the easier it is to hide the hidden message so digital pictures, which contain much data, are used to hide messages on the Internet and on other communication media. It is not clear how common this practice actually is.
For example, a 24-bit bitmap uses 8 bits to represent each of the three color values (red, green, and blue) of each pixel. The blue alone has 28 different levels of blue intensity. The difference between 11111111 and 11111110 in the value for blue intensity is likely to be undetectable by the human eye. Therefore, the least significant bit can be used more or less undetectably for something else other than color information. If that is repeated for the green and the red elements of each pixel as well, it is possible to encode one letter of ASCII text for every three pixels.
Stated somewhat more formally, the objective for making steganographic encoding difficult to detect is to ensure that the changes to the carrier (the original signal) because of the injection of the payload (the signal to covertly embed) are visually (and ideally, statistically) negligible. The changes are indistinguishable from the noise floor of the carrier. All media can be a carrier, but media with a large amount of redundant or compressible information is better suited.
From an information theoretical point of view, that means that the channel must have more capacity than the "surface" signal requires. There must be redundancy. For a digital image, it may be noise from the imaging element; for digital audio, it may be noise from recording techniques or amplification equipment. In general, electronics that digitize an analog signal suffer from several noise sources, such as thermal noise, flicker noise, and shot noise. The noise provides enough variation in the captured digital information that it can be exploited as a noise cover for hidden data. In addition, lossy compression schemes (such as JPEG) always introduce some error to the decompressed data, and it is possible to exploit that for steganographic use, as well.
Although steganography and digital watermarking seem similar, they are not. In steganography, the hidden message should remain intact until it reaches its destination. Steganography can be used for digital watermarking in which a message (being simply an identifier) is hidden in an image so that its source can be tracked or verified (for example, Coded Anti-Piracy) or even just to identify an image (as in the EURion constellation). In such a case, the technique of hiding the message (here, the watermark) must be robust to prevent tampering. However, digital watermarking sometimes requires a brittle watermark, which can be modified easily, to check whether the image has been tampered with. That is the key difference between steganography and digital watermarking.
In 2010, the Federal Bureau of Investigation alleged that the Russian foreign intelligence service uses customized steganography software for embedding encrypted text messages inside image files for certain communications with "illegal agents" (agents without diplomatic cover) stationed abroad.
There are distributed steganography methods, including methodologies that distribute the payload through multiple carrier files in diverse locations to make detection more difficult. For example, U.S. Patent 8,527,779 by cryptographer William Easttom (Chuck Easttom).
The puzzles that are presented by Cicada 3301 incorporate steganography with cryptography and other solving techniques since 2012. As time goes on, more instigates that include steganography have been present in ARGs.
In early 2016 I realized that it was possible to use zero-width characters, like zero-width non-joiner or other zero-width characters like the zero-width space to fingerprint text. Even with just a single type of zero-width character the presence or non-presence of the non-visible character is enough bits to fingerprint even the shortest text.
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