Spy movies are generally replete with secret messages. The agent opens the book to find a tape recorder with their mission and then it self-destructs. While this example is a bit dramatic it reflects on our collective interest and intrigue with secret messages. We are fascinated with covert methods of communication.
Secret Messages 101
Secret messages are by no means a modern concept. One of the first documented examples of a secret message being sent dates back to the fifth century B.C. A Greek tyrant, Histiaeus needed to send information regarding upcoming Persian attacks to an ally. To do this he shaved the head of one of his servants, tattooed a message on his head, and waited for his hair to grow back before sending the messenger out. He then sent the messenger and when he arrived, they shaved his head to read the message. This method requires a very dedicated messenger obviously. Technology has brought secret message capability to everyone now. With that, it’s time to break out your secret decoder ring as we explore a few ways to send secret messages.
The first one we will look at utilizes your digital camera. More specifically we will utilize the SD card in the camera. When you dig around through the settings on most digital cameras you will come across copyright info. This feature allows you to embed copyright info into the photo. While we usually would include “copyright your name” etc., we caneasily leave a message on the photo instead of copyright info.
Then we take a random photo, send it to our fellow spy who looks at the properties to see the message. The length of the message is dependent on your camera and SD card, but short phrases, locations, and times are easily added. These messages can also obviously be seen if you hand the camera off to your contact. They go into settings and copyright to read it. They can then delete the message or even reply to your original note.
Modern Day Secrecy
A less technical method of sending secret messages is by what is called dead drop email. While email being sent across a network is easily hacked, there is a way around it. Especially if the email is never sent. To use this method, set up a fake email account. Be sure not to use any of your personal information. Once it is set up, you will need to get the password for the email account to your contact.
Perhaps you can send it in a photo using the technique above. To now send secret messages, write an email but do not send it anywhere. Simply save it as a draft. When your spy partner logs on, they can go to drafts and read the message. They can then even edit the message to reply to you. If you ever suspect the account has been compromised, simply log on and delete the drafts.
Next up we will get a little more old school and talk about ciphers. Ciphers are simply encryption algorithms. They are a set way to encrypt and decrypt information. The process converts the original message, called plaintext, into ciphertext using a key to determine how it is done. These are sometimes letters being converted to numbers using a coder/decoder. The letter A for example may be the number 7 or any other number you chose. You then use the coder to write a message using nothing more than numbers. The person getting the message then uses the same decoder to translate it. There are dozens of classic ciphers out there and each works well.
The problem with them is that they are all common knowledge and can be decoded by someone who has time to research the various codes. My favorite is a book cipher. You choose a book that both you and your contact have. Then you use it as a reference for the code. An example would be using a page number, a line number, and then a word number. For example, in the book True Believer by Jack Carr I would say 146 for the page, 24 for the line number and then 7 for the word number. This gives me the word “transmission.” This cipher works well because only you and your contact know to what book the code refers. You can also get even more detailed and code out letters as opposed to complete words.
Top Notch Encryption
The last secret message method is a little more hi-tech and is called steganography. This method actually uses software to get the job done. A steganography software tool allows a user to embed hidden data inside a carrier file, such as an image or video, and later extract that data. It is not necessary to conceal the message in the original file at all. Thus, it is not necessary to modify the original file and it is difficult to detect anything. Essentially you are hiding it in plain sight. The method is very clever in that it replaces very small pieces of data in the image or video with the information you want to send.
The changes in the file are so minute that they are almost completely undetectable. In 2010 a Russian spy ring was broken up by the FBI. In their investigation, they discovered that Moscow communicated with a ring of alleged spies in America by encoding instructions in otherwise innocent-looking images on public websites. These messages were used to arrange meetings, cash drops, deliveries of laptops, and further information exchanges.
This note about the Russians brings me to one of the most critical components of secret messages. To be truly secret, you should present no reason for anyone to suspect you are sending messages. That is the true magic behind secret messages. If you are interested in sending secret messages, then secret is the keyword! Now you have a solid tool to start your spy career. Go invest in a tuxedo and trench coat and get to work.