Saturday, May 29, 2021

Steganography: Hidden In This Picture

 From The Last Word On Nothing:

Redux: Hidden in this picture

This is a picture of an old timey cash register, and thanks to the weirdness of tech and the weirdness of money, there could be actual money in it. Literal money that you can take out of the picture and spend.

Thanks to an app launched last month, you can now furtively smuggle money inside the image of your choice like you’re a WWII spy sending microdots full of secret documents on a “Wish You Were Here” postcard. “Bitcoin cash users can send transactions in a steganographic manner with the wallet hiding funds in plain sight,” reports It’s more evidence for the resurgence of steganography – the ancient and fine art of smuggling secret messages on apparently innocent carriers – made newly relevant by the demands of the digital age.

If you’re curious about steganography and why it’s in a renaissance, you might enjoy my story from earlier this year.

When the ancient Greeks wanted to get something done, they really committed. In 499 B.C., in a bid to get out of an unpleasant job assignment, Histaeus, the leader of Miletus, plotted a rebellion against the Persian king Darius the Great. Elaborately coded missives sent to co-conspirators would only rouse suspicion. He needed something much sneakier. So Histaeus shaved his favorite slave’s head, tattooed the message on his scalp, and then waited for the hair to grow back. When the tattoo was sufficiently covered up, he sent the slave to visit his co-conspirator, who knew where to find the goods.

This bit of stealth – not just sending a secret message but doing it in such a way that obscures any communication has taken place at all – is called steganography. In the 2500 years since Histaeus started his revolution, technology has helped steganography evolve, yielding methods from invisible ink to microdots, to secret bits stowed inside digital photos. But while this kind of thing makes for entertaining cocktail party chat, it has never borne much direct relevance to most people’s lives.

That’s about to change.

The past few years have seen fundamental changes in means, motive and opportunity for steganography. This has led to an alarming shift in how it is used: where it once mainly allowed (often) scary dudes to chat covertly with other scary dudes, it is now increasingly being used by those same scary dudes to chat covertly with your computer. These developments have so alarmed the folks at Europol that two years ago they put together a special initiative that would study the Cambrian explosion of new steganography tools, and look for ways to fight back.

“2018 is the year of the steganography renaissance,” says Chet Hosmer, founder of computer security firm Python Forensics. “But it’s not just about the tools the bad guys use. This might finally be the year the good guys start fighting back.”

The history of the arms race between the people trying to keep communications secret and those trying to smoke them out makes for good reading. During World War II, spies passed innocuous papers back and forth that would reveal their secrets in the form of microdots (photographed documents which the Germans managed to shrink down to the size of a totally missable period at the end of a sentence). There’s a long, dark internet rabbit hole waiting for the person who types “steganography” into the search bar.....