Ac­cused spies used ob­scure, high-tech method of mes­sag­ing

Austin American-Statesman - - WORLD & NATION - By David Mont­gomery

WASHINGTON — A year ago in April, the ac­cused op­er­a­tive known as “Richard Mur­phy” and his sup­posed wife, “Cyn­thia Mur­phy,” booted up a com­puter in their Mont­clair, N.J., home. They vis­ited a pub­licly avail­able web­site and clicked on a pic­ture. It looked in­no­cent enough. It could have been a rab­bit, say, or a sun­set, any­thing at all.

Ap­ply­ing spe­cial soft­ware, they coaxed words from the in­nocu­ous im­agery, a text file. Moscow was call­ing. A se­cret meet­ing in a sub­ur­ban New York train sta­tion was pro­posed: “C plans to con­duct a flash meet­ing w/ A to pass him $300K from our ex­pe­ri­enced field sta­tion rep (R). Half of it is for you. An­other half is to be passed to young col­league (known to you) in fall ‘09-win­ter ‘10. ...

“Place: North White Plains train sta­tion (Har­lem Line), quiet and de­serted on week­ends. No sur­veil­lance cam­eras. ...

“A and R meet in lower part of stair­case, in dead zone. R hands over and A gets pack w/ money (A’s BN (Barnes and Noble) bag stays in your hands, A hides pack w/ money into his tote).”

Pic­tures used to be worth a thou­sand words. Now in the new world of es­pi­onage, they are a thou­sand words.

As the Jus­tice Depart­ment’s case un­folds against 11 al­leged Rus­sian clan­des­tine op­er­a­tives, steganog­ra­phy is in the spot­light. Steganog­ra­phy is the prac­tice of hid­ing in­for­ma­tion in oth­er­wise un­re­mark­able me­dia. It is dif­fer­ent from cryp­tog­ra­phy, the en­cod­ing of mes­sages to pro­tect them from pry­ing eyes. The art of steganog­ra­phy is to fool pry­ing eyes into think­ing no mes­sage is be­ing passed at all.

Ac­cord­ing to the FBI’s com­plaint against nine of the de­fen­dants, in­ves­ti­ga­tors re­cov­ered more than 100 text files that had been embed­ded in stegano­graphic im­ages and ex­changed be­tween the Mur­phys and their con­trollers in Moscow. An­other pair of al­leged con­spir­a­tors, op­er­at­ing out of Bos­ton, com­mu­ni­cated the same way with head­quar­ters, as did a third pair, in Seat­tle.

The FBI hasn’t de­scribed the pic­tures that cloaked the mes­sages, ex­cept to say that they “ap­pear wholly un­re­mark­able to the naked eye.”

“From what’s been dis­closed, this is pretty much the way you would use steganog­ra­phy,” said Chet Hos­mer, chief sci­en­tist at Wet­Stone Tech­nolo­gies in Con­way, S.C., which de­vel­ops tools to com­bat cy­ber crime. “You have po­ten­tially thou­sands of peo­ple go­ing to a web­site and look­ing at a pic­ture. You have no idea who put it up and no idea who of the thou­sands of peo­ple look­ing at it are re­ceiv­ing the mes­sage.”

There are at least 1,000 soft­ware pro­grams to cre­ate and in­ter­pret stegano­graphic im­ages, Hos­mer said. His com­pany makes tools that can an­a­lyze a pic­ture and de­tect anom­alies that be­tray the pres­ence of stegano­graphic tam­per­ing. Yet pic­tures aren’t the only ve­hi­cle for se­cret in­for­ma­tion. Data can be embed­ded in videos, au­dio files, even stream­ing voice com­mu­ni­ca­tion over the In­ter­net.

Some of the trade­craft of the al­leged agents reads like a bad spy novel, and some an­a­lysts are snick­er­ing at the furtive hand­offs of shop­ping bags, the writ­ing in in­vis­i­ble ink, the goofy di­a­logue to ver­ify iden­ti­ties (“Could we have met in Malta?” “Yes in­deed, I was in La Valetta.”)

But the ex­ten­sive use of steganog­ra­phy is draw­ing more re­spect­ful no­tice.

“The steganog­ra­phy, that’s pretty hot stuff,” says Peter Earnest, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of Washington’s In­ter­na­tional Spy Mu­seum and a vet­eran of the CIA clan­des­tine ser­vice.

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