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Part IX Hiding Information 309
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28 Hiding Information: Steganography
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most hidden messages It is possible to hide messages in a robust manner that can withstand manipulation, but this requires a small message and a lot of data to hide it in or visible/audible changes to the cover data
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Security Considerations
Steganography seems like the sort of tool only spies would use Recent terrorism events have caused some to conclude that terrorists are using steganography to coordinate efforts over public forums This hasn t helped build credibility as a viable business tool The following are some other potential reasons for not using steganography: Other Equally Effective Techniques: In reality, many ways to communicate in a covert manner without resorting to steganography are possible Robert J Bagnall wrote an excellent article for the System Administration Networking Security (SANS) Institute (wwwsansorg/rr/steg/mythphp) on why terrorists are probably not using steganography as a primary communication tool This article illustrates dozens of simple techniques that are easily available to anyone with a laptop These include secure wireless communications, communication over free mail/forum/chat/web systems, anonymous Wi-Fi access, hiding data on mp3 players, data sharing through
310 Network Security Illustrated peer-to-peer networks, and passing information on tiny flash cards that can be concealed in a pack of gum Many of these techniques are as undetectable as steganography and require less technical knowledge Easy to break: Most steganographic techniques are sensitive to manipulation of the cover In some cases breaking potential steganographic messages might be desirable For example, a major public service like Ebay might wish to prevent people from creating fake auctions as covers for steganographic communications (embedded in pictures of the alleged sale item) A number of basic techniques can be used to reliably eliminate steganographic messages: Visible manipulation: Simply resizing an image would be enough to break most types of underlying steganographic messages Also, slicing up an image into four or eight pieces and then displaying the pieces side-by-side would force the recipient to go through an extra step of reassembling the image This in itself might destroy the message due to subtle changes in the alignment On the other hand, automated programs designed to detect steganographic messages might be foiled by this approach, whereas a human would know to download the pieces and re-assemble them later Overwriting the message: Adding a digital watermark to a file can change the noise pattern of the cover, essentially overwriting the first message with the watermark message Compression: Many audio, video, and image files are stored in a compressed format Uncompressing and recompressing the file will distort the noise in which a message might be hidden Steganalysis: Some people just love learning secrets Although most secret lovers are in primary school, there are a few who work in various three-letter US government agencies These agencies have spent time and effort learning how to intercept and decode communications This also includes detecting communications hidden by steganography Steganalysis is an entire field of research devoted to creating automated tools for detecting the usage of steganography Most steganalysis researchers are working with a government agency, although some are simply in it for the challenge The difficulty of steganalysis depends on how much you know ahead of time There are a few things you need to know, or assume, in order to detect a hidden message: That a hidden message exists Obviously at least one hidden message is out there, but what about the one you re looking for The technique/media used to hide the message Is it hidden in digital noise, a letter, or on the scalp of the hairy guy in seat 3A Where to look for the message Is it on a web page, sent in email, over instant messaging, in snail mail, or in a newspaper
Part IX Hiding Information 311 Without this basic information, finding a hidden message is shooting in the dark With all three bits of information, there may be a decent chance of success The suc- 28 Hiding cess rate ultimately depends on the ability to test every possible cover For many Information: techniques and message locations this is either impractical or impossible Imagine Steganography the look on the airline security agent s face if he or she were asked to check every passenger s scalp for hidden messages Most steganalysis research focuses on digital data as a cover medium A few years ago, researchers showed that existing steganography tools left signatures detectable patterns visible in the combined data Some automated tools were developed that could scan large numbers of images for these signatures This was a big breakthrough because it proved the possibility of automatic steganography detection It was bittersweet though, because slightly modifying any of the steganography tools would change the resulting signature and thus evade the automated steganalysis systems The new goal is to be able to achieve blind steganalysis, which is the ability to recognize steganography in digital data without knowing anything about the software tool used to encode the message A successful blind steganalysis tool would not rely upon signatures Instead, it might use statistical analysis to spot anomalies that indicate the presence of a hidden message The current state of blind steganalysis is not well known, as much of the research is confidential
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