# Strategies for solving steganography puzzles

I've seen a lot of puzzle here tagged but I mostly ignored them for now because I have no idea on how to even approach these.
The past days, I tried to read the answers to some of them and try to see what the approach might be in order to understand it better.
But still nothing.
I mean, the answers make sense to me but not how the solution was reached.
I assume that there is no silver bullet solution, but a few starting steps would help me understand.

Note: The accepted answer does not mean it's the best answer. The nature of the question makes it hard to come up with a best answer. The accepted answer it's the one that I liked best for different reasons. All the answers helped in one or more ways.

• I realise this is about strategies, but I'm wondering whether the strategy tag is correct. As I've seen it, it's usually about a game where you have to find the correct strategy. Unfortunately, I can't suggest a replacement. Also, 'tired' should be 'tried'. – boboquack Jun 9 '17 at 7:53
• I believe I've addressed @boboquack concerns by switching strategy with solvability. Please feel free to edit as you see fit. – feelinferrety Jun 9 '17 at 15:28
• @feelinferrety. Thanks for the edit. I think it fits. – Marius Jun 9 '17 at 15:43
• Seems like all of the answers can be summed up: look for hints and if you don't find any, look at the words. – Forklift Jun 9 '17 at 17:10

This is how you can get started -

Check out this article on Wikipedia which provides an insight. It also mentions some techniques used in Steganography.

So, when you see a puzzle with tag added you can start by looking at the following things -

1. First word/letters of each line/paragraph
2. Last word/letters of each line/paragraph
3. Bolded/Italicized/other visible formatting word/letters
4. Capital letters
5. In case if number's are mentioned with text, try checking if they relate to the text somehow e.g. index of the hidden letter etc
6. Word/Letter frequencies can be a part of steganography as well. e.g. Say, there is a 5 Paragraph note in a puzzle which is hiding a name and each paragraph is using all letters except M,K,I,E which leads to a name MIKE.
7. Words forming some kind of pattern like X,XX,XXX,XXXX
8. Images included in steganography may have various ways to hide the data.
a. Hex values can lead to something. To detect Hex values, you can use ColorPicker plugins. b. Or, hidden bit's detection like this
c. Or, data hidden inside image using online sites like this and this
d. XOR'ing image

It is really hard to list down every single method because there is no basic rule of thumb. People often innovate things and use them as Steganography.

Most recommended thing is to go through some tagged puzzles and see how they were made. Most of the times, the little details in the puzzle lead you to identify the way the data is hidden.

• Also +1, forgot to touch on aesthetic things like bolds/italics to hide things. But you're definitely right that these continue to innovate (usually) and find ways to hide them. – n_plum Jun 9 '17 at 12:33
• It starts to make some sense. thanks. – Marius Jun 9 '17 at 12:55
• I accepted this answer, not because It's the best (it may be, I don't know). All the answers brought something to the table. But the links (specially the ones for image processing) tipped the balance. Thanks you again. – Marius Jun 12 '17 at 6:07
• Another classic example comes from including words from a common category. This could be the NATO alphabet, a list of fruits, names, etc. Once you isolate the contributing words, you've reduced the text size and the rest should be easier. – awwalker Jun 13 '17 at 4:26

As Jan pointed out, a lot of it deals with finding hints in and around the puzzle. I just wanted to add additional strategies that I see being used in making and solving Steganography puzzles. Otherwise, I think they've touched on a lot of good points.

• Look for capitalizations, especially at the beginnings, ends, or in some sort of pattern. These often lead to key words, imgur links and even answers.

• Find patterns, or letters hidden among other answers to the puzzle that can lead you to complete solutions.

• Sometimes words or important phrases are hidden based off enumerations or sequential order. E.g the 1st line = 1st word/letter. 2nd = 2nds etc etc.

• As the tag says, things are supposed to be hidden in things that are not suspicious. So the best ones will be hard to find.

• A lot of people who find solutions faster, are those that have been doing this for a while and have a good eye for these things. Sometimes it's simply a matter of practice and knowledge and getting good at spotting what's hidden in the puzzle. Practice makes a Puzzler :)

As a general rule of thumb: Steganography means something is hidden and or weird about the puzzle. It's just a matter of noticing it. Titles can be important, odd characters, grammar and misspellings are also tricky, sometimes they're related, sometimes they're not.

And as a final note, just as Jan said, you learn best (in my opinion and in my experience) by trying them out yourself. Try making a puzzle, start simple, and just hide stuff inside of it. Whether it's a clue, a simple word answer, anything you want. Heck, even try hiding math inside of something since I know you're good at math based puzzles.

Good luck! Hope to see some more stenography puzzles for the FTC!

Edit: I forgot to mention that sometimes people won't include the steganography tag because it makes the puzzle super obvious, and then they add it later on so it can be shown it was meant to be used.

• +1 I was drafting and saw you posting the answer. But, continued to do so. Most of the things are same. But not all, so, keeping my post there :) – Techidiot Jun 9 '17 at 12:31
• Let me know if I'm on a good track: puzzling.stackexchange.com/a/52475/19989 (I will delete that answer if I don't reach a final or close to final solution. I added it there just so someone can confirm that I'm doing things right). – Marius Jun 9 '17 at 14:42
• @Marius Left a comment there, but yes in general good observations made. You're on the right track with what to look for :) – n_plum Jun 9 '17 at 14:44

There are usually hints around. Just open your eyes.
Shorter the puzzle is - the more obvious method should be. (This is why i avoid too long or meta puzzles.)
Sometimes hitting "Edit" or "Edited history" helps. It isn't usually solution, but it can lead to one. Sometimes take hints "literally".
When there is a picture - stego is usually inside it. Always imagine what is "additional" or "not normal" in picture and focus into it (however if it is too obvious - focus on everything else). Also imagine "How would I hide message there?" and if that doesn't work - people usually create another puzzle with that "wrong method".
Also there are usually "red herring", or "noise" which complicate things around. Sometimes it is just Optical illusion which I like the most, but it is too easy = probably already solved.

Try to create one and you will see (You don't watch sport if you never played one)

• I don't know about your last statement. I never played women beach volleyball, but I watch it :). – Marius Jun 9 '17 at 8:45
• @Marius and if you want unsolved stego - This mine is how I imagine stego should look like: puzzling.stackexchange.com/questions/52463/… – Jan Ivan Jun 9 '17 at 10:11

Steganography puzzles are hard to solve if there isn't an obvious hint, because there are so many different ways to use steganography.

Here are my notes on how to solve them, mainly just from experience:

Steganography can be defined as

the practice of concealing messages or information within other non-secret text or data.

Now there are a ton of different ways to conceal the messages or information. But there is usually some indication, either a hint or the way the text is written, displayed or anything along those lines.

Here are the most common methods, and how to recognise them followed by general strategies

### Common steganographic methods:

• First/last letters

Often called the null cipher, although it isn't really a cipher. It's a form of steganography where the first/last letters of words/sentences/paragraphs etc are used to spell something out.

This is quite common, but is usually just a step often giving a hint at the next step because its pretty obvious to see straight away. Often the giveaway is if there is a rare letter in the message, then a strange word has to be used.

• 1st of 1st, 2nd of 2nd, 3rd of 3rd, etc.

This is slightly harder to spot. This form of steganography requires you to take the 1st letter of the 1st word, the 2nd letter of the 2nd word etc to get the message.

This can often be spotted if the words in a sentence get increasingly bigger, for instance the 9th word in a sentence has to be at least 9 letters long. If there are multiple sentences, then the last words in each sentence will be the longest, so this can be helpful to spot this

• Before/after letter X

This method has each letter in a message hidden before or after (sometimes interchanging) a 'key letter'. This method is very hard to spot, although the good news is that there (should) be a hint somewhere cluing which letter the message is before/after.

If there is any giveaway, then it would be that sometimes a word or even better, multiple words will have a weird combination of letters. This is because there may be a letter in the message which doesn't usually get placed with the key letter. If there are multiple weird words, you can see if they have any common letters to try and deduce the 'key' letter.

• Before/after punctuation

Similar to above, the message can be hidden by having the letters after or before punctuation in the text.

This is pretty easy to spot, because there is usually a lot of punctuation required and occasionally weird words are produced.

• Bolds, italics and CAPITAL LETTERS

Each letter in the message is either italicised, bolded or capitalised. Pretty easy to spot as you get random bold, italics or capitals in the middle of a chunk of text

• Hiding braille or morse

This is a pretty boring method, but it is very commonly used. The text will contain either multiple full stops and dashes, or the words 'dot', 'dash' and 'stop' to hide morse code, or words like 'black', 'white', 'filled', 'empty' etc to hide braille.

• Word lengths and frequency analysis

Often word lengths can be used to hide a sequence or numbers. This can be very hard to spot.

Another way is to use frequency analysis to hide a word, so if the most common letters in a paragraph are 't', 'h' and 'e', then you get 'the'. This is easier to spot because you get lots of one letter.

• Words hidden between words

Things like 'house cretin' can hide words in between others. This can usually be spotted because this is hard to do with long words and it becomes obvious for them, and the text is usually nonsense

### General Strategies to solve steganographic puzzles

• Look for hints

Most stegos absolutely require hints. Unless it is really obvious, then a hint is required. Often the hint is a different, but extremely obvious form of steganography

Common hints:

• Words like 'firstly', 'initially', 'lastly' or finally to clue first/last letters
• Suspicious or nonsense words may be anagrams
• Things like 'don't forget to count' can indicate frequency analysis or word length.
• Words such as 'between' may indicate words hidden between other words
• Investigate anything suspicious

If there is a suspicious word or set of words, then see if you can find a pattern.

• Abbreviations are often used

Unfortunately it is hard to think of an exact strategy, because there are so many forms and people are constantly thinking of new ideas. My biggest suggestion would be to look for hints.

I hope this helps anyway...