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12.3. Steganography
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The symmetric ciphers that we have discussed so far all have one thing in common: they all seek to transform the plaintext into a random string of bits. When Alice sends a random string of bits to Bob, Eve may be able to infer that Alice is sending sensitive information to Bob. However, Alice may want to conceal the fact that she is sending sensitive information to Bob.
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12.3.1. What Is Steganography
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Steganography is the study of techniques for sending sensitive information that attempt to hide the fact that sensitive information is being sent at all. Steganographic techniques typically use a covert channel to send sensitive information from one party to another. For example, consider the following message that Alice could send to Bob: All the tools are carefully kept. This message may seem harmless enough, but within the message there is a covert channel that is used to send a secret message. The covert channel is made up of the first letter of each word in the message, and the first letter of each word spells Attack. There are many other examples of steganography for example, invisible ink pens that children use to send messages to each other. Authorities have speculated that videos of Osama Bin Laden raising a glass or conducting other actions may have meant something to his followers. If that is true, then Osama Bin Laden was using another form of steganography. There are also other digital approaches to steganography. For example, hidden messages can be transmitted as part of electronic images. Each pixel in an image can be represented as an 8-bit color code, corresponding to a red, green, and blue (RGB) value for that pixel. The first (or most significant) bit of each of the 8-bit components has the most significant effect on the color of the pixel. However, the least significant bit has only a very slight effect on the color of the pixel. One could change all of the least significant bits without affecting the average person s perception of an entire image. One could then use these bits to transmit a secret message. For example, if you switched the least significant bit of one of the RGB values of a black background pixel in a digital image from the value 000 to 001, you would be able to transmit the
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CHAPTER 12 s SYMMETRIC KEY CRYPTOGRAPHY
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secret message 1 to a receiver. Any eavesdroppers would not necessarily be aware that a secret message was encoded in the least significant bits of all the pixels just by viewing the image. There are freeware and shareware tools on the Internet for steganographic coding of messages in images. Steganography, however, is security by obscurity. As soon as a third party knows that steganography is being used, and can determine what bits make up the covert channel, the technique becomes more or less useless.
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12.3.2. Steganography vs. Cryptography
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The key advantage of steganographic techniques as compared to cryptographic techniques is that they allow Alice and Bob to exchange secrets without letting third parties know that secrets are being exchanged at all. The key disadvantage is that steganographic techniques rely on obscurity for security. Once the covert channel is known to the attacker, the technique is useless. While we have described steganography here, we have done so mostly to let you know that it exists; however, it is rarely used to accomplish software security goals in any serious application. Another disadvantage of steganography is that there is typically a high performance overhead to use it. In the preceding example of using the least significant bits of pixels in an image as part of a covert channel, Alice would need to send 7 bits for each 1 bit of secret information. If Alice wanted to send a lot of secret information to Bob, she would have to send much more non-secret information to mask the secret information. To attempt to remedy this, Alice could use more of the bits in the pixels to encode her information. However, the more bits that are used as part of the covert channel, the more perceivable the alternations in color to the image, and the more obvious it might be to an attacker that steganography is being used. In theory, steganography can be used together with encryption to leverage some of the advantages of both. If a message is encrypted before it is inserted into a covert channel, a third party will not only have to determine that there is a covert channel in use and obtain the contents of the secret message, but he ll then have to decrypt it as well. Unfortunately, combining steganography with encryption increases overhead even further because additional computational resources must be used to do the encryption and decryption.
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