As if computer malware that steals your data weren’t enough, now there’s a new kind to worry about: Malware that does it via covert messages that are practically impossible to detect. And it’s becoming more prevalent, according to a new paper by researchers at the Warsaw University of Technology, the National Research Council of Italy, and Fraunhofer FKIE, a private information security research institute.
The malware is a modern take on steganography, an old technique of hiding secret messages in apparently innocuous texts. This new so-called “network steganography” works by cramming extra information into the data packets that travel across networks when we use the internet.
Steganography is useful when it’s important to obscure not only the content of a message but the fact that a message exists at all, making it hard for law-enforcement agencies to detect. In digital form, it can be useful for good causes—for example, allowing a journalist facing censorship to communicate without attracting attention. But more often it has been used to infect computers and secretly steal data, or as a communication tool for criminal organizations.