Russian Spies Transmitted Messages Through Images

By Carlton Purvis

The group of Russian spies that was arrested last year after living undercover in the United States was using technology used by terrorist groups to pass covert information, according to FBI documents released on Monday.

Using false documents, the 10 spies lived and worked in the country leading normal lives on the outside, while gathering information and working to make connections with people in policymaking circles or sources with access to sensitive information.

The FBI released hundreds of documents relating to its surveillance of the group Monday morning in response to a FOIA request. The counter surveillance operation, dubbed Operation Ghost Stories, lasted for years while the FBI gathered information on the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) operatives’ methods of information collection and distribution.

According to the FBI’s criminal complaint against “Donald Healthfield,” the alias of one of the operatives, a search of his house revealed evidence of steganography, using photographic images to hide text.

After searching the home of two other spies who had been living as a couple, authorities discovered an electronic storage device with a password-protected computer program on it. Along with the device they found a photographed piece of paper that said “alt,” “ctrl,” and “e” and a 27-character sequence. Using the 27 letters as a password, technicians were able to open a steganography program that was used to encrypt messages in images. Later after visiting Web sites found on one of the computer hard drives, they were able to find images that contained hidden messages.

“These images appear wholly unremarkable to the naked eye. But these images have been analyzed using the Steganography Program. As a result of this analysis, some of the images have been revealed as containing readable text files,” the FBI says in the complaint.

For example, there’s actually a secret image in the photo at the top of this post.

In 2001, USA Today reported that the FBI said Hamas, Hezbollah, and al Qaeda were using the same technique to outfox U.S. authorities. The paper said terrorists were using steganography to hide messages about upcoming targets in X-rated pictures on Web site forums and sports chat rooms and that jihadists had been using programs to hide data in images since as early as 1996.


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