An entry in Fortnightly Topic Challenge #31: Steganography (round 2)...
I found this in my Inbox today. I think someone is playing a prank, but ... well ... I'm really not sure! Puzzling friends, can you please take a look and see if you can tell what's up with this message?
Date : 08-JUN-2017
Dossier : RAND AL'THOR
Subject : ELECTRONIC SURVEILLANCE REPORT 1706
Surveillance target "Rand al'Thor" is known to have a history of eclectic, sometimes suspicious Internet searches. Prior reports detailed searches which returned the names of politically unstable or democratically unfriendly nations including Azerbaijan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Czech Republic, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan ("Google Searches", REPORT 1503), Turkmenistan, Iran, China, Vietnam ("Google Searches", REPORT 1505), and Iraq ("Google Searches", REPORT 1612); multiple uses of online cryptography tools; and ongoing association with an online community ("Puzzling"), whose members use a wide variety of techniques to encipher or disguise information, as well as with other online communities focusing on other areas of interest (see "Stack Exchange", REPORTS 1411 through latest).
Our latest surveillance report echoes earlier ones. Target continues to be active in a community whose ostensible purpose is to ask and answer questions about science fiction and fantasy, but whose members include a number of other potentially subversive targets of interest in this investigation. Target is also active in other groups discussing Literature, Movies and TV. We note that activity in another community-of-interest, Programming Puzzles and Code Golf, remains largely non-existent; monitoring activity there will continue, but thus far has not been of concern.
We continue to observe conversations between target and other targets of interest. The name "Rand al'Thor" is a key figure in a well-known fantasy series, A Wheel of Time. Curiously, "Mithrandir" (aka Gandalf, a key figure in the Lord of the Rings series) is another target of interest, and both these targets interact frequently in more than one online community. For roughly the past half year, starting mid-November '16, these two "key figures" have had quite a bit of interaction; we may need to look for other notable literature figures that appear prominently in target's interactions. Given the communities they inhabit, the potential for clandestine exchange of information certainly exists, and there may well be a whole network of contacts concealed in plain sight. We recommend looking for other frequent contacts and placing them under watch as well, but (as always) great care must be taken to keep this surveillance secret — we could jeopardize the entire investigation if we manage to scare the targets off. One particular place to look is the aforementioned Programming Puzzles and Code Golf community, whose members have been increasingly observed chatting outside their usual room ("The Nineteenth Byte") with members of the Puzzling community (of which target is a high visibility member and still its highest reputation participant). We noted in our last report that Puzzling chat traffic has greatly increased lately, with much high-volume traffic consisting of the exchange of many "clues" and "answers" in short periods of time; this chatter seems to be consistent with wordplay games being hosted in those chat rooms, but we would remiss not to point out that, in modern browsers such as Chrome or Firefox, plugins might easily be in use which could encode intelligence data in these seemingly innocuous exchanges, and these two communities would be both capable of and enthusiastic about doing so. If this is happening under our noses, this entire surveillance investigation would be a total failure. Prudence demands we put resources on this promptly.
In our last report, we noted a dramatic drop-off in online traffic by target for nearly two weeks, and wondered if this might signal a sudden deep apathy with respect to online duties (see "Stack Exchange: Moderation", REPORT 1705). Our current report demonstrates this drop-off was temporary. As outlined at the close of the last report, we were commencing to set up physical surveillance on target from a nearby hotel; this was briefly put on hold when activity dropped off, but is now back in play. Starting with REPORT 1707 we will add an additional section detailing the results from this physical surveillance.
Please find the full surveillance report attached.
- Agent YANKEE DOODLE DANDY
- Agent FOUR NO TRUMP
What is this message all about?
helpfulness level 0:
enigmatic-puzzle should really be something else, but that would be giving away too much.
helpfulness level 1:
Focus less on countries, more on capitals.
In retrospect this hint is perhaps more misleading than helpful, but it is technically a slight nod in the right direction.
helpfulness level 2:
Rand Al'Thor may be just the first of 9 people being watched ...
helpfulness level 3 (hintception):
Prior hint both asks two questions, and answers its own first question (in 3 different ways!)
helpfulness level 4:
The puzzle is a letter, made out of words.
The answer is a word, made out of letters.
Words to letters, letters to words,
Is this a hint or is it just absurd?
helpfulness level 5:
• The only thing important about cover letters like this are the letters themselves.
• Urgency is HIGH because there's a deadline!
helpfulness level 6:
• level 4+2: Letter → words → letters → words → letters → word.
• level 3+3: Listen, astute solvers, to these words of wisdom: examine every known solution our ffao made all year!