The Null Device

Finding patterns in things

In 2003, the CIA found what it thought were al-Qaeda terrorist instructions encoded in the al-Jazeera news ticker. The "instructions" detected by the CIA's steganalysis software included dates, flight numbers and the coordinates of targets including the White House and the small town of Tappahannock, Virginia, and resulted in the national terror alert level being raised from "extra-severe" to "brown trouser time" and almost 30 flights being cancelled. That is, until it emerged that the "hidden messages" were just the result of random noise, coincidence and the human pattern-finding instinct:
The problem with hunting messages hidden by steganography is that there are so few of them, any computer program will come up with false positives - messages that aren't really there. "The false positive rate, even if it's vanishingly small, starts to throw signals at you that makes you want to believe you're seeing messages. And somebody could be fooled by that if they didn't understand the nature of steganography," says Honeyman.
This happened some time after it was discovered that al-Qaeda weren't hiding terrorist instructions in images on internet porn sites.

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