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$1.1 million award Air Force grant to support digital-detection lab

Binghamton University will be home to a new laboratory dedicated to hiding and finding data hidden in digital images thanks to a $1.1 million award from the Air Force Research Laboratory in Rome and the work of steganography expert Jessica Fridrich.

Fridrich, a research professor in the Watson School’s Electrical and Computer Engineering Department, is receiving the award for her proposal “New Generation Methods for Digital Security: Steganography, Steganalysis, and Authentication Watermarks.”

During the 17-month project, Fridrich and her research team intend to develop and refine algorithms to detect hidden information in digital images, she said. By successfully attacking the most advanced steganographic schemes for JPEG files, the most common digital image format, Fridrich said her team’s innovations would dramatically improve current detection capabilities, including some she had developed.

JPEG files are compressed images, which presents a difficult challenge both for hiding and detecting information. Current detection techniques for JPEGs have not been reliable and generally allow transmission of large hidden messages without fear of detection.

“So far our detection techniques were oriented toward BMPs and GIFs (two of the other digital image formats),” Fridrich said. “As I said when I spoke to The New York Times last October, the most common format was eluding us. But in the last few months, we have made significant progress. Recently we have developed some groundbreaking methods for detecting secret messages hidden in JPEGs.

” As part of the project, Fridrich and her team plan to build a demonstration digital camera capable of invisibly embedding an image of the user’s iris into photos taken with the camera in order to authenticate the images. Such technology will become more important as forensics experts and military intelligence operatives rely more on digital cameras, Fridrich said.

“Digital cameras offer better resolution, better color depth and the images are much easier to handle and to enhance,” she said. “But then a smart lawyer can say, ‘How can you be so sure? Digital images can be so easily modified. How can you prove that this image hasn’t been tampered with? How can you prove this is the image taken by this person, with this camera?’ Now we will have a method to decide this question.”

An image of the user’s iris will be taken with infrared diodes through the viewfinder and embedded in the primary image being photographed, Fridrich said. The process will be imperceptible to the user and will provide a human signature, like a fingerprint, on every image taken with the camera.

“The camera will actually be encoded with a camera key hardwired in a tamper-proof box, something like a smart card, that would make a connection between the digital image, the person who took the image and the hardware that took the image,” Fridrich said.

The $1.1 million award is the latest in a seven-year string of major awards that have made Fridrich and her research program self-supporting. Two or three post-doctoral researchers and five graduate students will work on the project, and powerful computers, digital cameras, specialized software and related hardware will be purchased for her laboratory on the ground floor of the Library.

While Fridrich’s inventions have already generated five U.S. and international patents, she doesn’t foresee any lessening of opportunities for discovery in the field.

“It’s like with encryption,” she said. “Encryption has been around for thousands of years. It still has not been solved completely because it cannot be solved completely. We have schemes and encryption algorithms, and people keep breaking them and developing new ones.”

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