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New technology unveils hidden data in images

6/6/2005 - ROME, N.Y. (AFPN) -- Using the power and speed of high-performance computers, Air Force Research Laboratory engineers here are finding the keys to unlock hidden data in the digital world.

Working with an algorithm, engineers have reached a major milestone in the research and development of steganographic key-breaking, which allows for the extraction of hidden data in images.

Steganography, meaning “covered writing” in Greek, is a military communications tactic that originated more than three millenniums ago. During the era of the Roman Empire, military commanders would shave a messenger's head, write a message on the sheared scalp and -- once the hair grew back -- send the messenger through enemy lines.

This ancient tactic, however, has found new vigor in the high-tech world of digital images, video and audio. Military adversaries or terrorists can benefit from easily available software capable of embedding hidden messages in otherwise innocuous images.

"You could liken this to cryptography, where you use a password and algorithm -- or mathematical formula -- to create a scrambled message," said Chad Heitzenrater, a program manager in the laboratory’s information directorate’s information and intelligence exploitation division. "Using the proper password and algorithm allows you to crack the code.

"Steganographic algorithms likewise use a password to determine how something is hidden in an image or audio file," he said. "Basically, our project is working to create high-performance computing resources or architectures and utilizing those to identify steganographic passwords. High-performance computers allow fast, massive searching and require much less time than random efforts to pinpoint the correct password."

"The password is the vital key to steganography," he said. "If you can determine the algorithm, you can determine the password -- and thus decode what has been hidden in that picture or audio. Our specific effort is focusing on proving technology for finding steganographic embeddin in images; however the technology will have both military and law enforcement applications for scanning digital audio and video products."