21st Century SPAM

With so much information being freely available these days, it is easy to forget that people are also going to great lengths to hide it. Writing in code is only doing part of the job. To get really cute we need to hide the writing as well.  Lovers of old spy novels and movies will remember the searches for the microdot with a whole encyclopedia hidden therein. Our digital world has expanded the possibilities considerably.

The current word to describe the process of hiding messages is stenography. Now it is easy (relatively) to play with pixels in a jpeg to leave a message for the cognoscenti (1), but also someone may have left a message hidden in that music track you just down loaded. Listen carefully Clearly some uses are good, but some might be not so good. Anti-counterfeiting is clearly one of the more worthy.

The more devious amongst us ask more questions; such as can the messages be time-released? We already have an effective barcode in crop genes of patented species, which eager lawyers are using to put farmers in difficulties. This field takes us into infoBiology as well as steganography. A combined field, laden with possibilities.

A new paper by Walt et al in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science is using genetically engineered strains of E. coli which have fluorescent proteins associated with them. They are printed and the colonies will develop, either with time or when exposed to growth conditions and then the fluorescent code can be read (2).

They call their new technique of organizing microbe spies Steganography by Printed Arrays of Microbes or SPAM for short.  So far, SPAM is just at the proof of principle stage, but the concept of engineering microbial allies to give a controlled release of critical information is certainly scary. For example, are we going to see our food SPAMed so that if we get ill, the origin can be traced from our various outputs?

  1. http://www.symantec.com/connect/articles/steganography-revealed
  2. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1109554108

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