Steganography

Neil Plakcy has written or edited over three dozen novels and short stories in mystery, romance and erotica. To research the Angus Green thrillers, he participated in the FBI’s sixteen-week citizen’s academy, practiced at a shooting range, and visited numerous gay bars in Fort Lauderdale. (Seriously, it was research.)

He is an assistant professor of English at Broward College in South Florida, and has been a construction manager, a computer game producer, and a web developer – all experiences he uses in his fiction. His website is http://www.mahubooks.com.

In writing the Angus Green thrillers, I try to come up with ways for my newly-minted FBI Special Agent to use his intelligence and his skills to find clues in ways that I can easily explain to the reader. I love the opportunity to learn about investigative techniques and then figure out how to incorporate them into my narrative. In Nobody Rides for Free I found a great use for steganography, in which covert messages can be concealed in digital materials.

The second in the Angus Green series begins with a case ripped from the headlines: a thirty-something Federal office worker attacks a woman in his office parking lot, attempting to eat her face off.

News junkies might recognize that there have been several similar cases in Florida in the past couple of years, attributed to a highly addictive drug with the street name of flakka. In the case Angus investigates, the only clue to the source of this drug is an email chain between the office worker and a boy who purports to be fifteen who says that he’s being paid to make erotic videos.

How could I turn that video into a clue that would lead to the boy, and potentially then to the distributor of the drug? That’s where the steganography comes in. One of the ways it can be used is to embed additional pictures or text that can only be seen when the movie is played at a slow speed.

Angus watches the video over and over until his eyes glaze—that point when we often see things in the background that jump out. And what he sees is an incongruous poster on a locker, an image of snow-capped peaks and the words “Ice and Snow: Take it Slow.”

The poster is one intended to remind drivers in northern climates of the dangers of driving in hazardous conditions. But what’s it doing in a locker room that purports to be at Hialeah Race Track in South Florida?

Angus realizes that the poster is an instruction to viewers to watch the movie at a slow speed. Watching frame by frame, he realizes that two additional images have been sandwiched between frames, including the name of the company that produced the video, and instructions on how to find other similar movies. My assumption is that when this video is posted in specialized forums, there will be a clue in the description either pointing to that poster, or simply telling viewers to watch the movie slowly for links to similar videos.

This is one of the simplest uses of steganography, and one that’s easy for anyone with a basic knowledge of digital editing. That makes it reasonable for my villain to accomplish, and for Angus to figure out. Of course there are many more sophisticated ways to use this technique—but those will have to wait for another book!