Social Steganography

From danah boyd:

Carmen is engaging in social steganography. She’s hiding information in plain sight, creating a message that can be read in one way by those who aren’t in the know and read differently by those who are. She’s communicating to different audiences simultaneously, relying on specific cultural awareness to provide the right interpretive lens. While she’s focused primarily on separating her mother from her friends, her message is also meaningless to broader audiences who have no idea that she had just broken up with her boyfriend.

Posted on August 25, 2010 at 6:20 AM47 Comments


Clive Robinson August 25, 2010 7:27 AM

@ Bruce,

Bearing in mind your audiance which might well include well over the societal norm for high functioning ASD sufferes….

I would suspect that their significant others (if they have one) “pass messages” over their head to one of the parents and other relatives a significant amount of time.

Most of us know that “wives and mother’s in law” have the ability to pass covert meaning as do other femail relatives that the “men folk” just don’t pick up on.

I would think as adolescents have their own “oof spek” the number of covert messages the could pass would be significantly larger.

Imperfect Citizen August 25, 2010 7:40 AM

It was a good article.

Hiding in plain sight is something that is often overlooked. For example, in the domestic observation business, the contractors hand out jobs at well known coffee shop chains. I know this because I was followed in. A woman who followed me into the building was loudly complaining about having to “watch” me again, as it was her day off. I recognized her, and her vehicle’s license plate. She walked over to a guy with a laptop, around him were other folks I’d recognized.

Later I returned, I sat and watched, the people who reported to him didn’t even come in and buy coffee/donuts/bagels, they walked up to him, picked up sheets and talked and walked out. So I went over and looked at one of their binders, it said “hours and mileage”.

Hiding in plain sight, that’s the domestic observation game. They call me their guest. The man said as I left, “make sure our guest gets home.” I was followed home. So I guess the hiding in plain sight may seem pedestrian, but its real and its very creepy.

lurker August 25, 2010 9:22 AM


domestic – within the United States
observation – following people around, watching everywhere they go and everything they do
business – government agencies contract this kind of work out, so the people doing the actual watching are just employees of some security business (i.e. not direct employees of a government agency).

Based on past posts by Imperfect Citizen, you can read the phrase “the domestic observation business” as a reference to the people who get paid to continuously follow Imperfect Citizen around, watching for “terrorist activity”. Because they get paid to do this, they have an incentive to make sure that they continue to get paid to do this, so they are likely to report suspicious incidents (and ficticious incidents) to keep the gravy train going.

fred August 25, 2010 9:41 AM

Pardon me, but how is this steganography? I’d be more likely to accept the recent revelations of Plato’s hidden messages in his dialogs as sten.
I see Boyd’s article as a rehash of Leo Strauss and (back to Plato) the “noble lie”. Nothing to see here, move along.

Michael August 25, 2010 10:26 AM

Could social steganography be relevant to “national security?” For example, a group hostile to a nation could use such to communicate a message over a public web site with multiple meanings that only adherents could understand. Perhaps the social sciences should research this further as part of national security research and analysis?

Chris S August 25, 2010 10:39 AM

There is a much older name for this – veiled speech.

“an act of speaking on a telephone or radio, in such a way as to conceal the true meaning of the conversation, without actually using a code”

I liked the original article. Bruce provides enough of a discriminating filter that it works to my advantage to read here. I’d be concerned that wanting Bruce to have a narrower filter for what he posts would make his blog far less valuable, since he might start to skip over too many potential items. Moreover, seeing a few items posted here that I don’t feel the need to read acts as an assurance that I’m seeing the edge of the “of interest” domain, and not just the core.

Chris S August 25, 2010 10:45 AM

… and now that I think about it, this does get used in other ways (or at least it used to be).

A friend with nine seasons of archeological field work in the Middle East said he always listened to the BBC news.

He said that the local population (not English first language) would always hear … the news. But when needed, the BBC could make make the hair on the neck stand up for a native English speaker. This was a valuable early warning signal for foreigners in the region.

phred14 August 25, 2010 10:59 AM

In a similar vein, I have a “pet conspiracy theory” (ie: a conspiracy theory that I don’t really believe in, but think is fun) about spam:

Some amount of spam is really a covert communications channel for terrorist and intelligence agencies around the world. How often does anyone really read that stuff? Most of us count on our filters to get rid of it before we even get a chance to see it. Occasionally I’ve looked at some, and some does try to sell me something, usually Nigerian oil or Viagara, but a heck of a lot of it is pure gibberish, and even if I were a sucker eager to spend my money, I couldn’t tell where to send it, or what they were even hawking.

Gibberish messages that everyone gets and disregards as a matter of course seems like an ideal opportunity for steganography.

MikeA August 25, 2010 11:18 AM

In some circles a related practice is called “dog whistle” speech. This is when a politician uses phrases that have a specific meaning to “the base” while seemingly innocuous (or banal) to the average citizen.

Wolfger August 25, 2010 11:39 AM

So… any double entendre is steganography? I think that’s a bit too loose of a definition.

Also, this story is more about somebody not having a clue how to use FB’s privacy controls than anything.

No Nym August 25, 2010 12:03 PM

There was a famous story making the rounds a few years ago, about a student who wanted to be off an alumni fundraising list. They faked their own obituary. Those who knew the student would know it was impossible, owing to a fear of heights. I think this is it:

BF Skinner August 25, 2010 12:30 PM

@Clive “I would think as adolescents have their own “oof spek”

You are far out man, this is so groovy. Outta site, yeah. Some of us are into this secrets bag you see? It’s a gas, but you don’t need no church key to open it with and you can get some serious bread but some cats are like, so, you know? And the chicks are like, what? which is such a bummer. So I gotta boogie it’s time to crash before it gets hairy and I have to deal with the fuzz.

@fred how is this steganography?

Steganography – literally meaning covered writing. It doesn’t have to be covered by cipher can be covered with a piece of cardboard if no one thinks to look under it.

BF Skinner August 25, 2010 12:35 PM

@Adam I suspect Imperfect Citizen’s issues are largely in her own imagination.

A distinct possibility but without more data I withold judgement and hold it both true/not true.

There is certainly a domestic surveillence industry (CCTV, homing tracing software for “children”) and there have always been private investigators.

gawp August 25, 2010 12:53 PM

In a book called “The Neanderthal Enigma” the author speak of the ‘messages’ left by hunter gatherer societies. They contain nested layers of information accessible. How much you’re able to interpret depends on your familiarity with the group leaving the message.

Chris S August 25, 2010 1:01 PM

@Wolfger: “Also, this story is more about somebody not having a clue how to use FB’s privacy controls than anything.”

I think I would disagree on this point. The key item is that the individual needed to communicate with others while allowing mom to be inside the privacy line.

FB’s controls will do a lot – and often more that people know – but I didn’t think you could make them lie for you. If someone is blocked from commenting (or even viewing) it’s likely going to be clear to the blocked person that they aren’t welcome.

William Martin August 25, 2010 1:15 PM

I work in interviewing people and there are some concepts not ordinarily made public and which need no scientific review outside because it is already well proven in certain circles.

One of these is the concept of the Freudian slip is far broader then people realized. People are constantly inserting into their words even on the most common subjects that which is most pressing on their heart. This is true especially with those who keep secrets be it a lover with a secret crush or a spy or a hollywood actor incognito.

It is all a matter of interpretation.

In security, the problem of relying on private data only two ppl know or only a person and an org should know is surveillance and the problem of moles.

Comp sec concepts well parallel these methods, such as two ppl revealing shared secrets when both are in disguise or when an agreed apon password framework is existing through a third party. Such as a company.

I find in investigations and interviews the single best way to get people to really think hard on secrets is to slowly dig at what those secrets may be then to dance around it or dance around the opposite of it.

One has to make it actually hurt. They want to scream they hate or love. And it seeps through their words just like two young lovers in the throes of romance.

Petréa Mitchell August 25, 2010 1:42 PM

The “dog whistle” is also known as “code words”.

A similar phenomenon is the use of disguised literary or pop-culture references in fiction. Sometimes it’s a hidden meaning which matters to the story, but more often it’s just a way for the author or director to signal to their in-group how cool they are. For instance, when one of my favorite authors has a minor character found to be living on Semley Avenue, some of his readership realizes this means he’s an Ursula K. Le Guin fan, which improves their opinion of him further. (Unless of course they hate Le Guin, but that’s probably a smaller percentage of his readers who get the reference.)

S. Holmes August 25, 2010 3:26 PM

The supply of game for London is going steadily up. Head-keeper Hudson, we believe, has been now told to receive all orders for fly-paper and for preservation of your hen-pheasant’s life.

Noah Churchill August 25, 2010 4:09 PM

Some of these posts go into the concept Franklin spoke of “three can keep a secret if two are dead” and what Joseph Campbell spoke of in the universal legend and hero which is well spoken of in the movie “Unbreakable”. That is there is truth behind all fiction and legends, even further to all things people say.

Thing is people do keep secrets and great things do happen in the most obscure of places. But there has to be strong motive for strong secrecy and if a secret is really intense and unbelievable it, as Churchill once said “is precious and must be accompanied by a bodyguard of lies”.

I would hate to be a Tex Marrs though trying to figure out the truth hiding behind all the conspiracy theories and disinformation out there.

what is gang stalking? August 25, 2010 4:51 PM

@Imperfect Citizen:

Are you a frequent reader of:

areyoutargeted(dot)com ?

Scott August 25, 2010 5:34 PM

How do you know that Dr. Boyd is not doing the same thing in her blog? (A YORK Peppermint Pattie to the first person who uncovers the part where she’s inviting me to lunch.)

By the way, cephalosporin antibiotics are often useful for cases of social steganography.


Clive Robinson August 25, 2010 6:20 PM

@ Scott,

Agh Yuck, I was just munching a midnight snack when I read,

“By the way, cephalosporin antibiotics are often useful for cases of social steganography”

Way way To Much Information, especialy as the BBC news has been banging on about STD’s in under 25s this evening…

m700 August 25, 2010 8:09 PM

Please, tell my a good book on steganography.
Gustavus Simmons wrote the book? I read his “Subliminal channels”, very interesting!
Sorry for my bad English.

billswift August 26, 2010 2:08 AM

Robert Heinlein used this idea in his 1950s short “Free Men”. The resistance groups communicated by radio using teen slang to hide the message from the occupiers.

Tim August 26, 2010 6:27 AM

The mention of tattoos under hair has made me wonder suspiciously about Bruce’s beard.

What message could there be?

Mike August 26, 2010 6:41 AM

Tell me you’re not thinking of this as something new? In Sweden we have the expression: What is not said is more important than what you’re being told. Anyone who is interested in this should read up on rethoric. Especially the older orators in Rome and similar. This is an artform.Here is a good start:

Clive Robinson August 26, 2010 9:32 AM

@ Tim,

“What message could there be?”

Well as Bruce is presumably not a wage or any other kind of slave it would be a message of his own chosing.

Unless the reason for Bruce’s beard is the same as mine which is to cover up some unsightlyness from my chin making unexpected contact with a metal object and the subsiquent medical scars from removing the full fracture of my lower jaw (after all who needs a jaw like that of a reticulating python)

ne01 August 26, 2010 10:41 AM

@Chris S (8/25 13:01)

You don’t need to outright block someone’s commenting or wall viewing/posting access to control what they can/can’t see on your wall. You can individually set the privacy settings of each wall post. In the example given, the girl could have easily posted her original song-lyric post and simply blocked her mom from seeing that single post. Pretty easy.

phred14 August 26, 2010 12:01 PM

@Sia (8/25 4:48)

Thanks for the link. Or in my best Charlie Brown voice talking to Lucy van Pelt on the Christmas special, “THAT’S IT!!”

R August 26, 2010 1:10 PM

Facebook lets you exclude specific people from seeing your posts by default.

But yeah, people do post things that aren’t meant to be clearly understood by everyone. Among my Facebook friends, plenty of posts look cryptic, so maybe people aren’t hiding that they’re hiding things. Or maybe I just don’t know enough song lyrics, poems, and sci-fi to keep up.

I do like @Mike’s comment about rhetoric and hidden messages. Folks commented on how George W. Bush’s speechwriters put in “dog whistle” phrases: things that sounded unremarkable to most folks, but, to right-leaning Christians, were religious references. And it’s pervasive for politicians to play indirectly on people’s unspoken thoughts about something they can’t talk about outright. For instance, the fringe talk about Obama’s religion and citizenship is arguably playing on racist perceptions that a black president isn’t “one of them.” Reagan’s bit about “welfare queens” invited people to be bitter at their image of ‘those other poor people,’ which if it wasn’t racist was certainly classist — based on an image that the statistics didn’t support of how folks on welfare lived. Or politicians would talk about Saddam Hussein and 9/11 together to imply he was connected to it, even though they couldn’t say it because he wasn’t.

More mundanely, politicians routinely put out wordsmithed statements meant to say they believe in some cause without committing them to any real action on it, like a vote for a bill — they’re meant to read one way to the public and another way to insiders that count votes.

On the other side of the political spectrum…well, I don’t know, Glenn Beck’s going to have to work out the conspiracy theories about how Obama’s saying things to the left with codewords. (I suppose folks at all different points along the political spectrum can interpret “change” to mean whatever they want.) I don’t know, maybe Democrats have just been less in touch with their lefty base.

shadowfirebird August 26, 2010 3:06 PM

Alternately, Carmen and her friends could stop using a “social networking” site which is determined to disseminate everything she says to everyone she knows?

The model does seem to be broken for her, doesn’t it?

Matt from CT August 26, 2010 8:02 PM

I’m reminded my of the mafia’s use of phrases like “He’s a friend of mine / He’s a friend of ours.” Most people wouldn’t think much of it either way listening casually, and many who did pickup the difference wouldn’t think much of it. But “of ours” is used for rare and crucial introductions.

Nick N August 27, 2010 12:59 AM

“There is a much older name for this – veiled speech.”

I always use this when speaking on my cell phone in public.

“I’m reminded my of the mafia’s use of phrases”

Did you speak to the guy about the thing we did the other day? 🙂

WRT Imperfect Citizen being followed, I hear that the church of Scientology does that sort of thing to its “enemies”.

Roger August 27, 2010 9:09 AM

Weird. So, a bunch of teens were more familiar with “Life of Brian” than one of their mothers? A mother who didn’t spot the slightly cynical tone in lyrics like:
“Life’s a laugh and death’s a joke, it’s true.
You’ll see it’s all a show,
Keep ’em laughing as you go.
Just remember that the last laugh is on you.”

Noah Churchill August 29, 2010 12:59 PM

@Matt from CT:

Yes, I agree on the “This thing we have” (mafia/la cosa nostra). Even the very organization did not have a name.

on “imperfect citizen”:

Yeah, that stuff happens. Some people are into stuff and so it happens. Working from a donut shop is a “tell”, and I think poor practice though. Surprise, surprise posts like this and sites like this bring out such people sometimes.

Strong conspiracies are held together just by such communication. They are kept that way by training in being under surveillance everywhere which is a system generally setup by those who have made small mistakes and seen people get killed for them.

Unless you are in a bubble, how do you think people ever communicate?

Anyone involved in anything even mildly serious has to just assume they are always under surveillance.

Sorry, bad form of me. I just can’t keep such a gigantic thing secret when people are posting about how it doesnt happen in real life.

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