Social steganography?

Steganography was in the news this summer when the FBI revealed that Russian intelligence agents were using steganography to pass secret messages.  Unlike encryption, which mathematically changes a message so that it can’t be read by a third party, steganography hides the message in plain sight — in this case in image files.  With the buzz in the news, there was some discussion on blogs as well.  I’m not sure how I came across it, but Danah Boyd penned an article about steganography in social media.  Boyd talks about a girl named “Carmen”, who quoted lines from a Monty Python movie to communicate distress to her friends while hiding it from her mother.

I took serious issue with the article as an example of steganography.  While it may technically meet the definition since Carmen’s mother apparently does not realize a secret message is being sent, that’s more a matter of serendipity than message obfuscation.  Frankly, it’s a better example of “Carmen’s mom has no taste in movies” than “teens can hide secret messages in Facebook”.  If Carmen’s mom had seen “Life of Brian”, which is undoubtedly older than Carmen, then the steganography fails.

Steganography only works if the recipient knows not to respond in the clear, too. If Carmen’s friend “Jane” had said “aw, what’s wrong”, the whole thing is blown. It’s possible that Carmen and her friends have worked out a protocol ahead of time, but that’s more of a code than a method.  While it would be very trivial to share secret messages on Facebook, but song lyrics from a beloved movie is a pretty bad way to do that.  To me, this article reads like another “OMG YOU WON’T BELIEVE WHAT KIDS ARE DOING ONLINE” piece designed to scare gullible parents.

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