Acrostics are a data hiding technique that has been in use for centuries. The latest example is contained in a letter of resignation written by a US committee last week.
All 17 members of Donald Trump’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities (PCAH) have resigned in response to the controversial remarks Donald Trump made earlier this week about a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Beforehand, several business leaders had resigned from persidential advisory groups for the same reason.
Acrostic in the letter of resignation
Why do I write about this issue on a crypto history blog? It’s because in the letter of resignation of the PCAH a short message is hidden (thanks to John Haas for the hint). The first letters of each of the five paragraphs combine to spell out RESIST. This word has become associated with protest against the Trump administration. The following picture shows the letter of resignation with the first characters of each paragraph marked:
The coding method used by the committee is known as “acrostic”. Wikipedia defines an acrostic as “a poem (or other form of writing) in which the first letter (or syllable, or word) of each line (or paragraph, or other recurring feature in the text) spells out a word, message or the alphabet.” Acrostics are a special case of null ciphers and belong to the field of steganography.
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As mentioned before on this blog, my new (German) book on the history of steganography, Versteckte Botschaften, will be published by the end of this month.
For centuries, acrostics have been a very popular data hiding technique. My book contains dozens of examples. One of the most famous is the following gravestone located in Montreal, Canada:
Other notable acrostics mentioned in my book were created by Arnold Schwarzenegger, the PETA (American animal rights organization), Edgar Allan Poe, WW2 soldiers, and spies – just to name a few. The lyrics of the Dutch national anthem contains an acrostic, too.
Of course, there are many more acrostics than I could include in my book. Here’s one I found on Wikimedia (written by Nathaniel Dearborn in 1850):
The following is an acrostic in an advertisement for Eastern German car Trabant:
Another potential acrostic was discussed in the British press in 2001, when soccer club Manchester United lost to the teams of Bolton, Liverpool, Arsenal, Newcastle and Chelsea. The first letters of these clubs combine to spell out BLANC, which is the surname of then United player Laurent Blanc. Was this just a coincidence or a steganographic hint given by the god of football? If you have an answer or if you know other nice acrostics please leave a comment.
Further reading: Tony Gaffney’s starlight steganogram