Hide and seek

Published January 1, 2024
The writer is a journalist
The writer is a journalist

AT some point in the distant past our ancestors learned to communicate; at first this was presumably limited to non-verbal gestures and basic vocalisations which eventually evolved into the languages of today. In due course, it must also have become apparent that a way to disguise your communications was also critical; finding a bountiful foraging spot or locating a herd of deer for hunting was good news for your tribe, but shouting it out at the top of your lungs could also let rivals in on the discovery.

And then, as humanity went forth and multiplied in numbers but divided politically into city-states, nations and peoples, we did what humans have always done: we went to war with each other. And here the need to be able to secretly communicate with your side without letting the adversary know what you were up to began to assume critical importance.

Of all the various tricks and devices used to achieve this end, the most fascinating to me is the practice of steganography, which is simply defined as the practice of representing information within another message or physical object, in such a manner that the presence of the information is not evident to human inspection.

The earliest known example of this is as far back as the 5th-century BC, where we hear of the Greek tyrant Histiaeus, who was faced with the problem of warning his allies of an impending Persian attack while also making sure that the message was not intercepted by Persian emperor Darius’ troops.

The Raj was unable to unpack the ‘chapati movement’.

Finally, he hit on a simple if clever technique: he shaved the head of one of his servants and had a secret message tattooed onto his scalp. Then, after waiting for the hair to grow back and cover the message, he dispatched the servant across enemy lines and when he arrived at his destination, his head was shaved once again and this message was delivered.

Closer to home, we have a similar example in the revolt against colonial British rule in 1857. As discontent against the British grew, the need to coordinate actions and resistance between different rebellious Indian groups — from village elders to police constables and sepoys — grew as well. The problem was the pervasive surveillance system set up by the Raj and how to avoid that.

Legend has it that this led to the birth of the ‘chapati movement’; beginning in the town of Mathura, near Agra, protesters started making and distributing small chapatis which were then delivered under the cover of darkness to homes and villages across north India, and the recipients were instructed to make more such chapatis and then pass them forward like a chain letter made of ground wheat. Stymied, the British were unable to discover the true intent behind this movement, though many historians believe that the intentions were two-fold: one, to create an atmosphere of confusion and uncertainty, leading to the expectation of some major event to take place down the line; and two, to use some of the chapatis to deliver secret messages. In the latter scenario, the sheer number of chapatis being distributed meant that at least some of the (no doubt coded) messages would get through. While the jury is and will remain out as to the actual intention behind this, I tend to favour the latter theory just because it sounds so cool.

We find many other examples throughout history, like Ann Strong using hanging laundry to send coded messages to spies working for George Washington in the American revolutionary war, or the grandmothers sympathetic to the resistance in German-occupied Belgium in World War II, who reportedly used codes embedded in knitting to let their compatriots know about German troop movements.

But the most fascinating such example brings us back to hair, except here the secret message wasn’t hidden under the hair but in the hair itself. The oral histories of African slaves brought by their Spanish captors to Colombia in the early 16th century relate that escaped slaves would try and coordinate rescue attempts and escape routes by using their hairstyles to send messages.

Braiding was particularly popular in this scenario, and slaves who wanted to escape would wear their hair in thick, tight braids, braided closely to the scalp and tied into buns on the top. Records relate that “another style had curved braids, tightly braided on their heads. The curved braids would represent the roads they would [use to] escape”. The braids also allowed the escapees to hide seeds and gold in their hair, both of which would be essential for starting a new life.

Today the practice of steganography has become digitised, with messages hidden in image files like jpegs and accessible only to those who know the codes. We’ve certainly come a long way from Histiaeus and hair.

The writer is a journalist.

X: @zarrarkhuhro

Published in Dawn, january 1st, 2024

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