Steganography is the art and science of writing hidden messages in such a way that no-one apart from the sender and intended recipient even realizes there is a hidden message. By contrast, cryptography obscures the meaning of a message, but it does not conceal the fact that there is a message. Today, the term steganography includes the concealment of digital information within computer files. For example, the sender might start with an ordinary-looking image file, then adjust the color of every 100th pixel to correspond to a letter in the alphabet—a change so subtle that someone who isn't actively looking for it is unlikely to notice it.
The word steganography is of Greek origin and means "covered, or hidden writing". Its ancient origins can be traced back to 440 BC. Herodotus mentions two examples of steganography in The Histories of Herodotus. Demaratus sent a warning about a forthcoming attack to Greece by writing it on a wooden panel and covering it in wax. Wax tablets were in common use then as re-usable writing surfaces, sometimes used for shorthand. Another ancient example is that of Histiaeus, who shaved the head of his most trusted slave and tattooed a message on it. After his hair had grown the message was hidden. The purpose was to instigate a revolt against the Persians. Later, Johannes Trithemius published the book Steganographia, a treatise on cryptography and steganography disguised as a grimoire.
Generally, a steganographic message will appear to be something else: a picture, an article, a shopping list, or some other message. This apparent message is the covertext. For instance, a message may be hidden by using invisible ink between the visible lines of innocuous documents.
The advantage of steganography over cryptography alone is that messages do not attract attention to themselves, to messengers, or to recipients. An unhidden coded message, no matter how unbreakable it is, will arouse suspicion and may in itself be incriminating, as in countries where encryption is illegal. Often, steganography and cryptography are used together to ensure security of the covert message.
Electronic communications can include steganographic coding inside of a transport layer, such as a file, or a protocol, such as UDP. Media files are ideal for steganographic transmission because of their large size, and are usually compressed either losslessly, as with FLAC or PNG, or lossily, as with JPEG images, MPEG video, or MP3 audio.
A steganographic message (the plaintext) is often first encrypted by some traditional means, producing a ciphertext. Then, a covertext is modified in some way to contain the ciphertext, resulting in stegotext. For example, the letter size, spacing, typeface, or other characteristics of a covertext can be manipulated to carry the hidden message; only the recipient (who must know the technique used) can recover the message and then decrypt it. Francis Bacon developed Bacon's cipher as such a technique.
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