Colin Brissey
March 28, 2024

Steganography: The Tables Have Turned

Steganography – the art of hiding secrets in plain sight, is the basis of one of the oldest espionage tactics that has transformed into much more.

Steganography, an age-old practice dating back to ancient Greece, has found its place in the modern age, evolving from simple hidden messages on paper to complex codes embedded within digital files. It's a technique that's as fascinating as it is useful, involving the concealment of secret information within non-secret, or "carrier," information. This method of discreet communication has traversed through centuries, from the historical accounts of Herodotus in 5th century BC, to the sophisticated digital landscapes of today.

A Cloak of Invisibility

Recently, there has been an uptick in the utilization of steganography by threat actors, whose nefarious uses range from concealing data exfiltration and hiding malicious code to covert communications with command and control servers. An illustrative example involves the standard image of Lenna, a photograph that became iconic in the world of image processing. In a notable experiment, Kaspersky researchers managed to embed the first ten chapters of Nabokov's "Lolita" within the image. This manipulation was done without altering the resolution or the file size, showcasing the subtlety with which steganography can be used. Out of respect for Lena Forsén, the person in the original photo, the modified file won't be linked here, but the example stands as a testament to the capabilities of steganographic techniques.

Traditionally, images have served as the preferred medium for embedding secret codes. However, as technology progresses, sound and video files have emerged as new canvases for these hidden messages. This shift reflects the adaptability of steganography to various forms of media, broadening the horizon for its application.

The Lighter Side of Steganography

While steganography has often been associated with malicious intent, it's important to acknowledge its beneficial uses, particularly in cybersecurity and cyber intelligence. A notable instance is the NSA's apprehension of Reality Leigh Winner, former linguist and translator for the NSA. The breakthrough came from identifying microdots on printed material published by The Intercept, demonstrating the power of steganography in aiding the "good guys."

However, the challenge intensifies when the traditional pathways of document handling are circumvented — what happens when a document is never printed, or when content is copied and pasted into a different application for exfiltration? Or even more cunningly, when a bad actor takes a picture of their screen to share the information via a personal device, thinking they won’t get caught? These scenarios describe the "analog hole," a gap in security measures that has historically been difficult to bridge.

Until now, there was no way to identify when information bridged this divide between digital security and analog technology and techniques. That’s why EchoMark was formed. A beacon of innovation in the field of steganography, EchoMark was founded to address precisely these types of challenges, closing the gap that the analog hole presents.

EchoMark: Bridging the Gap

In 2022, EchoMark was founded on the principle of keeping private data, private. The team worked for a year building a product, ready to launch the first AI-powered solution to effectively safeguard private communications in the digital age through the use of invisible forensic watermarking via steganography, natural language versioning, and computer vision detection. But why?

Insider leaks have become a chronic problem and serious concern for organizations due to the “analog hole”. Now there’s an entirely new way to manage insider risk while ensuring private information still efficiently flows to those who need it so they can do their best work.

The Dawn of a New Era

For decades, the narrative around steganography has predominantly painted it as a tool for adversaries – hackers wearing a hoodie in a dark basement. However, as demonstrated by initiatives like EchoMark and the NSA's ingenious use of microdot identification, steganography also holds immense potential beyond espionage, for defensive and protective measures. Its adaptability across various digital mediums — from images to sound and video files — underscores its versatility as a tool for both concealment and discovery.

As we venture further into digital technology and its intertwining with physical permutations, the roles of steganography continue to evolve. What was once a covert method for bad guys has now become a sophisticated tool in the arsenal of the good guys. The development and application of steganographic techniques by entities like EchoMark highlight a critical shift towards utilizing these methods for safeguarding information and enhancing security measures. Steganography is not merely a tool for the clandestine activities of threat actors, but a dynamic and evolving field that offers valuable solutions for protecting sensitive information in an ever-evolving and hyper-reliant digital age. Whether a cybersecurity professional, developer, or simply someone interested in the intersection of technology and security, embracing steganography and understanding its potential is a step towards a more secure digital future and trusted space for innovative growth.