Goodies To Go #139: Steganography

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Tue Dec 10 11:45:29 PST 2019

Burns is a computer science professor.  No wonder students' heads are so
often fucked up.

# # #

                     Goodies to Go (tm)
              July 16, 2001--Newsletter 139

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Now onto today's topic...

I've been a big fan of Morgan Freeman ever since I saw the Shawshank
Redemption.  Not too long ago, I went to see one of his films titled,
"Along Came a Spider".  It wasn't spectacular but then again, it wasn't
bad.  I enjoyed it and the popcorn was fresh.

Like many films that involve the Internet, email and streaming digital
video, the technology was often overblown.  What happens on the screen
mostly likely wouldn't happen in real life, at least not over a 28.8 modem
attached to AOL.  This movie was full of that kind of stuff.  Streaming
video looking like HDTV, email had a graphic interface that was just
spectacular, and kids were sending text messages back and forth encoded
into gif images.

Oh, wait.  That last one's true.

It's a process called steganography and it's nothing overly difficult.  In
fact, there are numerous freeware and shareware programs out there that
will help you to encode text or images into documents, images, or sounds.
They're easy to find.  I was successful by going to and and simply searching "Steganography".  The choices were vast.

You'll find that the software tends to differ a great deal. Some will only
encode into BMP.  The one I have will encode to both BMP and GIF.  Other
programs will encode into sounds files.

If this is new to you, you must be thinking the same thing I was thinking.
There's no way the sound file would play if text were encoded into it.
Well, you'd be wrong.  It plays just fine.  The only downfall of my program
was that the BMP images that I encoded text files into looked a bit grainy.

I'm sure you can see why kids would dig this.  Little Joey can email an
image of Michael Jordan to his friend Billy. Billy's Mom sees the image and
thinks all is OK.  Only now, Billy runs the image through his un-encoder
and there are the answers to tomorrow's testor worse.  I know what you
were thinking!

Of course this is much more than a simple method of transferring data
between kids. It can be used to cloak all kinds of data.  And, in fact, is

There's now a belief that terrorist Osama bin Laden, has been sending
documents around the world hidden within pornographic images and MP3 files.
That copy of Barry Manilow's "Copa Cabana" you grabbed from NAPSTER could
have plans stuck way down deep inside.  You simply wouldn't know by looking
at it.


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Let me go one step further if I might.  If it is actually true that
terrorists are doing this, shouldn't our government look for it with the
intent to intercept it?

You have most likely heard of a program called, "Carnivore".  According to
the FBI, Carnivore was so named because it "chews" all of the data coming
through a certain data network but only "eats" information allowed by court
order.  Basically, Carnivore is a wiretap used on the Internet.  What's
more, Carnivore is always at the very center of the privacy debate.

If it is true that terrorists are using steganography to transfer data
round the Web, then I think you're going to start to hear a little more
about Carnivore because, as far as I can see, it is our best bet to catch
these embedded packets.  The problem then is two fold.

Carnivore works through court order and thus deals only with "allowed"
data.  You may disagree, but let's stay with that thinking for a moment.
Privacy advocates will have enough to be upset about by the end of this
newsletter without bringing anything to the table.

Problem number one is that the mail from a terrorist group will not be
labeled as such.  I highly doubt you're going to find
"BinLaden036 at".  That means that using Carnivore as a set wiretap
will be difficult.  It may happen that the FBI only knows that somewhere on
a network, there may be a terrorist.  Thus, all email will have to be

Now problem number two.  It's not the text of the email that's the problem
any more.  It's the attachment. Carnivore, if it isn't already, will have
to be bettered to be able to look at attachments and "know" whether that
attachment contains an embedded file.  And!  If Carnivore finds an embedded
file, it will have to open it to read it.

Oh dear.

Steganography is real and there's serious reason to believe that it is
being used for very bad purposes.  We have once again come full circle on
the same basic question of privacy on the Web.  If you have privacy, so
does the person sending around terrorist documents.  I think we can all
agree that no one wants that.

New technology has once again opened a Pandora's box of privacy and legal
issues, but it's the same old question. How much of your privacy are you
willing to give up so that those searching for a terrorist have any
opportunity at all.


That's That - Thanks for reading.

Joe Burns, Ph.D.

And Remember: How many licks does it take to get to the middle of a Toosie
Pop?  It's more than three.  Numerous experiments have been undertaken to
find the answer. The average is 142.  The data span was 75 to 200 licks.
I'm not sure if 142 represented the mean or the average. I'm not sure how
much I care either.

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