• Posted by Konstantin 18.09.2015 No Comments

    Steganography is a marvelous subject, which could be considered a subfield of cryptography. Unfortunately, it is some-why absolutely underrated nowadays. It is not covered by the standard computer science curricula (although it would fit perfectly both within lectures on Cryptography as well as Signal Processing), and way too many people believe steganography is something akin to adding grey stamps to images in Photoshop. Even the almighty Wikipedia, in its corresponding article, does not provide a decently clear view of the field, in my opinion. To fix this I thought I'd give a try at making up a short explanation myself.

    As mentioned, steganography is somewhat of a fellow discipline to cryptography. While the goal of cryptography is to protect the communication channel between Alice and Bob from some hypothetical evil Eve, the goal of steganography is to conceal the fact of communication itself. The classical setting is described as follows: Alice and Bob are kept imprisoned by the evil warden Walter. They are allowed to talk to each other, but Walter is listening to everything. How could Alice and Bob arrange a prison break without raising suspicion?

    Steganographic problems

    More specifically, steganographic problems can be divided into steganography against a passive warden, and steganography against an active warden.

    Passive warden steganography

    In this case Walter can only observe Alice and Bob's communication, but may not interfere. Walter's task is to be able to detect which of the messages between Alice and Bob contain secret meanings (if they do). If Walter comes up with a method by which he can distinguish innocent messages from the ones with a secret meaning with nontrivial probability, we shall say that Walter has succeeded in a "passive attack" on Alice and Bob's steganographic system.

    Besides helping imaginary prisoners hide from imaginary wardens, passive steganography has many practical applications. For example, some printers add a barely visible watermark to each printed page, which identifies the printer model and the date. Radio and TV advertisers sometimes include in their clips a hidden identifier of the product being advertised (which simplifies automated airtime monitoring and validation). Storage of image metainfo within the image itself (e.g. storing the patient id within its X-ray picture) may prevent confusion when data is transferred or converted, etc.

    It must be noted, that from the perspective of classical cryptography the methods mentioned above are not very interesting. Indeed, it is customary to assume in cryptography that all the details of the protocol used between Alice and Bob are open to all parties, including Walter. The only thing that Walter should not know is the "key". Without knowing this key Walter should be incapable of attacking the system. This is not the case in the examples with the printers and advertisements. No keys are involved and anyone who knows the algorithm can immediately discover the hidden message (i.e. attack the system).

    The methods for designing such systems focus primarily on techniques for adding information to a known audio/video/textual signal without distorting it in a perceivable manner and, possibly, making the presence of this information resilient to transformations that the signal may pass (video streaming, file format conversion, text normalization, etc). Consequently, the complexity of many such methods lies mostly in the area of signal processing. In the case of audio, for example, it could mean finding sound frequency components that, on one hand, will be left unchanged by most audio codecs, yet on the other hand could be modified without the listener perceiving the change. In some sense it resembles a fight between the codec (which attempts to remove any redundant channels) and the steganographic system (which aims to make use of any redundancy remaining).

    Active warden steganography

    A more interesting situation is where Walter is not only listening in to Alice and Bob's communications, but may also actively interfere, removing any potential hidden meanings. The best example here is copyright protection. They say that movies, when shown in cinemas, would usually contain a steganographic watermark in their video signal, which identifies the particular movie theatre. The "warden" here is a movie pirate, who might know about the existence of the watermark, and would be interested in removing it (without corrupting the movie itself, of course). Consequently, the watermark must be included in a way, where Walter the pirate is incapable of removing it, even if he knew all the details of the watermarking algorithm (except for a secret key, of course). Besides movie watermarking, similar techniques could be used by other authors to "sign" their creations so that their authorship could later be established, when necessary.


    Multiple methods exist for solving both the active and passive warden steganography. Not being able to list all of them, I will mention just the two core concepts, which I think are enough for an introductory overview.


    The most well-known example of steganography - least-significant-bit (LSB) steganography - is applicable to analog data, such as music and images. The idea is that small changes in some values (pixels, frequency components) of an analog signal would not affect the perception of the signal in a notable way. For example, by tuning some pixels in an image one could transmit several bits of additional information. Of course, the choice of those pixels should be determined using a shared secret key, otherwise Walter could easily detect or remove the covert message.

    The problem in the most naive version of this approach is that not every pixel in an image can be safely modified. For example, in regions filled with a single color any such change will be easy to spot. This can be overcome by only picking the pixels with enough variability in their neighborhood. Another weakness of the method is that the steganogram may be easy to remove by resizing or cropping the image. This can be prevented by hiding information in the spectral components rather than pixels - those are more resistant to the usual transformations. In fact, if we are dealing with a photograph or anything else that will be saved as a JPEG file, this approach would be quite nontrivial to break. The same ideas are used for steganographic processing of audio and video signals as well.

    Equivalence-class steganography

    Quite often Alice has a choice for multiple options for sending the same message. For example, when writing a text message to Bob, she can choose the phrasings. She can write "Hi" instead of "Hello", "Robert" instead of "Bob", punctuation can be used in multiple ways, and so on. When Alice is writing a novel, she is free to choose the names of the characters and places, chapter titles and even the order of events. Knowing the possible equivalence classes for the messages to be sent (e.g. words or sentences) as well as a common key, Alice may easily choose her words so that only Bob would be able to grasp whether there is a secret meaning and, if so, what it is.

    A simple practical example of a coding algorithm is the following: Alice will code a single bit by each sentence of her text. For obtaining this bit, Bob will have to apply a hash function to the sentence plus the secret key and use the last bit of that hash. During coding Alice will simply have to choose words so that each sentence would correspond to a correct bit.

    In its bare form the method is easy to attack - Walter may try to rephrase the text himself on transmission. This, in turn, can be overcome if Alice would hide the bits only into particularly chosen words or word sets (which can only be found by knowing the key), and do it using redundant coding (thus Walter would need to significantly alter the text if he wanted to be sure the message is removed). If Alice hides the message into the names of the characters of her novel, Walter may have no chances at all.

    Methods like that are claimed to be used by large software companies to watermark their code (here, instead of choosing synonymous words a specific algorithm will be choosing synonymous bytecode instructions). This makes it possible to track the particular license which was used to leak a pirated version. Another example is geographic mapping software, which may use various equivalent ways of displaying a fractal shore in order to watermark the image.

    As noted, other approaches and techniques exist (I did not find the space to properly mention public key steganography here, for example), yet I belive that LSB and EC-steganography largely illustrate the core ideas behind modern steganography in general as well as its possibilities and limitations. For those interested in the security proofs behind such techniques, this paper is a must read.


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  • Posted by Konstantin 07.09.2015 2 Comments

    Research and engineering always go hand in hand. Their relationship is so tight that often people cease to see the difference. Indeed, both are development activities that bring along technical advances. Many researchers work in engineering companies, many engineers do what is essentially research, is there even a need to see the difference? Quite often there is. Let me highlight this difference.

    Research (sometimes synonymous with "science") is, ideally, an experimental activity, which aims to explore some space of possibilities in order to hopefully come up with a certain "understanding" of what those possibilities are or how they should be used. Researchers primarily deliver written reports, summarizing their findings. There is absolutely no guarantee that those findings would be "interesting" or "useful" to any degree - indeed, a research project by definition starts off in a position of uncertainty. As a result, for practical, commercial or investment purposes, research is always a risky activity. It may take a long time, it will produce mostly text, and there is no guarantee that the results will be of use. The upside of this risk is, of course, the chance to stumble upon unique innovation, which may eventually bring considerable benefits. Later.

    Engineering is a construction activity, where existing knowledge and tools are put together to deliver actual products. In order for this process to be successful, experimentation and uncertainty must be, ideally, brought down to a minimum. Thus, when compared to pure research, engineering projects are low risk endeavors, where the expected outputs are known in advance.

    In simple terms - researchers answer questions whilst engineers build things, and by this definition those occupations are, obviously, very different. This difference is often apparent in material fields, such as construction or electronics, where the engineers can be distinguished from the researchers by the kind of tools they would mostly hold in their hands and the places they would spend their time the most. With computational fields this visual difference does not exist - both engineers and researchers spend most of their time behind a computer screen. The tools and approaches are still different, but you won't spot this unless you are in the field. I did not know the difference between Software Engineering and Computer Science until I had the chance to try both.

    Things become even more confusing when data mining gets involved. The popularity of projects, which focus on building data-driven intelligent systems, is ever growing. As a result, more and more companies seem to be eager to embrace this magical world by hiring "data scientists" to do "data science" for them. The irony of the situation is that most of those companies are engineering businesses (e.g. software developer firms) and, as such, they would not (or at least should not) normally consider hiring anyone with the word "scientist" in the job title. Because scientists are not too famous for bringing stable income, engineers are.

    The term "data science" is a vague one, but I think it is quite succinct in that it captures the exploratory aspect that is inherent in general-purpose data analysis, as well as the current state of the art in the field. Although there are some good high level tools for a wide range of "simple" machine learning tasks nowadays, as soon as you want to try something more exotic, you are often on your own, faced with uncertainty and the need to experiment before you can even try to "build" anything. For a typical engineering company such uncertainty is not a good thing to rely upon.

    It does not mean that one cannot engineer data-driven systems nowadays, it means that in reality most of the companies, whether they know it or not, need a very particular kind of "data scientists". They need specialists with a good knowledge of simple reliable tools and are capable of applying them to various data formats. Those, who would perhaps avoid excessive experimentation in favor of simple, scalable, working solutions, even if those are somehow simplistic, suboptimal and do not employ custom-designed forty-layer convolutional networks with inception blocks, which require several months to debug and train. Those, who might not know much about concentration inequalities but would be fluent in data warehousing and streaming. There's actually a name for such people: "Data engineers".

    There is nothing novel about the use of such terminology, yet I still regularly encounter way too much misunderstanding around this topic over and over again.

    In particular, I would expect way more of the "Data engineering" curricula to appear at universities alongside the more or less standard "Data science" ones. The difference between the two would be slight, but notable - pretty much of the same order as the difference between our "Computer science" and "Software engineering" master's programmes, for example.

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