Clandestine Message Passing in Virtual Environments

I’ve been interested, though not very seriously, in steganography for years, since first stumbling across the term in the early 1990s. In my mind, it’s always been of little more than academic interest, but Uncle Sam feels differently. There are repeated allegations – though precious little in the way of actual evidence, that I’m aware of – that “terrorists” are using, or merely could be using, steganography to pass messages. The typical idea usually involves hiding hidden messages in a graphic file on a website, and I’ve even heard, over the years, speculation (allegations?) that one or more parts of “the government” are “spidering” the web, looking for image files which contain hidden secrets. I can’t say whether that’s true or not, and I can’t really see the point to it, either.

A more recent, seemingly unrelated concern is the theoretical use of “virtual environments” like World of Warcraft or Second Life by “terrorists” to plan, rehearse, or train for all kinds of nefarious acts. This isn’t really a new idea – back in the days after the Columbine shootings, authorities were shocked and outraged at the possibility that people could be using computer games like Doom (remember Doom?) to rehearse and plan similar attacks. (C’mon, hands up everyone who was a computer geek in high school back then, and used a level editor – or thought about using a level editor – to recreate your school in Doom…)

Now, though, some clever boffins have found yet another new reason to fear Second Life and other virtual environments: the possibility that people could be using such an environment to pass clandestine messages – not just pass clandestine messages in obvious ways, but in super-sneaky, fiendishly-clever ways – like, you go into Second Life, and head over to someone’s house, or storefront, or whatever; on a shelf inside is a vase of flowers. The color and number of the flowers change every day, in a (seemingly) random fashion – but if the flowers are ever, say, black, then your terrorist action is to go down at a prearranged time as many days from now as there are flowers in the vase. I have my doubts as to whether would-be terrorists would be worried enough to resort to such means of communication, but what do I know?

The whole scenario – including other fun ideas like communicating in an online MMORPG or virtual environment by sign-language, semaphore signals(!), or even seemingly-random body language – is examined in a recent thesis paper, Clandestine Message Passing in Virtual Environments (250Kb PDF!). Just when you thought it was safe to pop back into Second Life for a few hours, eh?

Published in: Geekiness, General, Security | on February 13th, 2009| Comments Off on Clandestine Message Passing in Virtual Environments

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