In this article we are going to talk about how to detect the steganography scheme for JPEG images known as F5. To do this, we are going to use the steganalysis tool Aletheia.

  1. How F5 and nsF5 work
  2. Initial exploration
  3. Calibration attack
  4. Steganalysis with Deep Learning
  5. Can we trust the model?
  6. References

How F5 and nsF5 work?

F5 [ 1 ] is an algorithm for hiding information in JPEG images. Unlike previous methods, like JSteg, F5 does not modify the DCT coefficient histogram as much, so it is able to avoid the statistical attacks that existed when it was published.

To hide information, F5 adds 1 to the coefficients with a positive value and subtracts one from the coefficients with a negative value. The coefficients with a zero value are not modified, as this would alter the statistic of the image significantly.

This way of hiding information introduces a communication problem. The receiver will extract the message by reading the LSB of the nonzero coefficients, since the zeros are not used. But if when modifying a coefficient with value 1 or -1, it has become zero, the receiver would lose that bit. The solution used by F5, when this situation occurs, is to hide the same bit in the next coefficient again. While this solves the communication problem, it considerably increases the number of modified coefficients. As a consequence, the capacity is reduced. This problem is known as shrinkage.

On the other hand, F5 uses matrix embedding techniques to hide the information. This allows to hide the same amount of data. with fewer changes to the image,

The original implementation of F5 is written in Java and can be easily found on the Internet, although there is no official repository. A copy can be downloaded here.

This implementation is used by different tools. Perhaps one of the most popular is Stegosuite.

Let’s see an example about how to use the Java implementation of F5. First we download a test image:

convert lena3.tif -quality 100 lena3.jpg

And then we hide a message:

echo "My secret data" > secret.txt
java Embed -e secret.txt lena3.jpg lena3_f5.jpg 

The name nsF5 [2] comes from non shrinkage F5. This algorithm uses WPC or Wet Paper codes techniques to hide information. These techniques allow data to be hidden by marking certain coefficients as “non-modifiable”, in a transparent way for the receiver. This solves the shrinkage problem without reducing the capacity. That is, even if new zeros are generated from coefficients with a value of 1 or -1, the receiver will be able to read the message.

From the point of view of the modifications made to the image, F5 and nsF5 are equivalent. So the same techniques used to detect nsF5 allow us to detect F5. However, for the same number of modifications, nsF5 can hide more information than F5.

Aletheia implements an nsF5 simulator, so we can generate a test image with the following command:

./ nsf5-color-sim lena3.jpg 0.2 nsf5 

NOTE: In the previous command 0.2 corresponds to the payload, that is, we are hiding a message whose size is 20% of the total number of coefficients other than zero.

With a cover image and its corresponding stego image we can use Aletheia to see the type of modifications that are made. We do this with the command “print-dct-diffs”.

NOTE: Most of the command output has been suppressed

./ print-dct-diffs lena3.jpg nsf5/lena3.jpg 

Channel 0:
[(-8.0, -7.0, 1.0), (1.0, 0.0, -1.0), (2.0, 1.0, -1.0), ...]
[(1.0, 0.0, -1.0), (2.0, 1.0, -1.0), (40.0, 39.0, -1.0), ...]
[(2.0, 1.0, -1.0), (1.0, 0.0, -1.0), (-1.0, 0.0, 1.0), ...]
[(-1.0, 0.0, 1.0), (2.0, 1.0, -1.0), (-1.0, 0.0, 1.0), ...]
[(-1.0, 0.0, 1.0), (1.0, 0.0, -1.0), (-1.0, 0.0, 1.0), ...]
[(1.0, 0.0, -1.0), (-1.0, 0.0, 1.0), (-1.0, 0.0, 1.0), ...]
[(-1.0, 0.0, 1.0), (1.0, 0.0, -1.0), (-5.0, -4.0, 1.0), ...]
[(2.0, 1.0, -1.0), (-1.0, 0.0, 1.0), (-1.0, 0.0, 1.0), ...]
[(3.0, 2.0, -1.0), (-22.0, -21.0, 1.0), (9.0, 8.0, -1.0), ...]


Common DCT coefficients frequency variation:

Channel 0:
-3: -52
-2: -61
-1: -435
+0: 1189
+1: -417
+2: -94
+3: -37

In the first part of Aletheia’s output we can see how the coefficients change. Information is displayed in triplets of values. The first value of the triplet corresponds to the original value of the coefficient, the second corresponds to the value of the modified coefficient and the third to the difference between the two. Thus, we can see how negative values always decrease and positive values always increase. We can also see that there is no case in which a zero is modified.

In the second part of Aletheia’s output we see a summary of the variation in the frequency of the central DCT coefficients. As we can see, the number of coefficients with value zero increases while the number of coefficients with values 1 and -1 decreases. This is the main attack vector in the calibration attack, which we will see later.

Initial exploration

For the following experiments we will use the images in the folders actors/A1 and actors/A3 of Aletheia. Actor A1 is an innocent actor, that is, an actor who is not using steganography. Actor A3 is a guilty actor using steganography. And conveniently, he uses the nsF5 steganography algorithm.

In both cases, we can start with an automatic exploration using Aletheia’s “auto” parameter.

Let’s run the command for actor A1. auto actors/A1

                     Outguess  Steghide   nsF5  J-UNIWARD *
2.jpg                   0.0      0.0      0.4      0.2   
4.jpg                   0.0      0.0      0.1      0.4   
10.jpg                  0.0      0.0      0.1      0.0   
6.jpg                   0.0      0.0      0.4      0.5   
7.jpg                   0.0      0.0     [0.7]    [0.7]  
8.jpg                   0.0      0.0      0.3      0.3   
9.jpg                   0.0      0.0      0.3      0.4   
1.jpg                   0.0      0.0      0.1      0.1   
3.jpg                   0.0      0.0      0.2      0.4   
5.jpg                   0.0      0.4      0.1     [0.5]  

* Probability of steganographic content using the indicated method.

We see that only one image appears as stego for nsF5. In this case it is a false positive. There are also some false positives for the J-UNIWARD algorithm.

Now, let’s run the command for actor A3.

./ auto actors/A3

                     Outguess  Steghide   nsF5  J-UNIWARD *
2.jpg                   0.0      0.0     [1.0]    [1.0]
4.jpg                   0.0      0.0     [0.6]     0.3
10.jpg                  0.0      0.0      0.1      0.3
6.jpg                   0.0      0.0     [0.9]    [1.0]
7.jpg                   0.0      0.0     [0.6]     0.5
8.jpg                   0.0      0.0     [0.9]     0.4
9.jpg                   0.0     [1.0]    [0.9]     0.4
1.jpg                   0.0      0.0     [0.6]    [0.5]
3.jpg                   0.0      0.0     [0.5]     0.1
5.jpg                   0.0      0.0     [0.9]     0.2

* Probability of steganographic content using the indicated method.

We see that almost all the images are positive for F5. It should be noted that different methods can use similar techniques, so it is common to obtain positives with different steganography algorithms.

The auto command allows us to do an initial exploration to get some information about the images. Is steganography likely to be used? And in that case, which algorithms are most likely to be used?

Calibration attack

When an uncompressed image represented as a bitmap is compressed to JPEG, the original image is divided into 8x8 blocks, to which a discrete cosine transform or DCT is applied. Specially designed quantization matrices are applied to the DCT coefficients obtained to eliminate certain values with reduced visual impact, which generates many coefficients with zero value. This information is stored in the JPEG file and is used to generate the bitmap again when the image is displayed.

The calibration technique consists of decompressing the image to a bitmap, removing some rows and columns from the beginning (1-4), and compressing it again with JPEG. This forces the compression process to choose different 8x8 blocks, so the new JPEG image may have a statistic more similar to the original image than the stego image.

The idea of this process is to take the image we want to analyze, create another image through calibration and compare its statistics. If it is similar, it is that the analyzed image was cover. If it is very different, it is that the original image was stego.

This technique does not work for all types of JPEG steganography, but it does allow a very powerful attack against F5. The idea of this attack is to calculate the relationship between the number of ones and minus ones with respect to the number of zeros, Which, as we have seen previously, varied significantly. Details on the attack can be found in the article Steganalysis of JPEG Images: Breaking the F5 Algorithm [3].

Aletheia implements this attack, which can be executed with a command like the following:

./ calibration sample_images/lena_f5.jpg 
Hidden data found in channel 0: 0.4802783178664965
Hidden data found in channel 1: 0.46723791165593515
Hidden data found in channel 2: 0.45050276128936173

In the example above, the detection was successful, although when the amount of hidden information is small, it is not very reliable. Let’s see the folling examples with lower payloads (0.75, 0.50, 0.50 and 0.30):

./ calibration sample_images/lena_nsf5_0.75.jpg 
Hidden data found in channel 0: 0.20011387088739443
No hidden data found in channel 1
No hidden data found in channel 2
./ calibration sample_images/lena_nsf5_0.50.jpg 
Hidden data found in channel 0: 0.10527758055512187
No hidden data found in channel 1
No hidden data found in channel 2
./ calibration sample_images/lena_nsf5_0.40.jpg 
Hidden data found in channel 0: 0.07801106953467886
No hidden data found in channel 1
No hidden data found in channel 2
./ calibration sample_images/lena_nsf5_0.30.jpg 
No hidden data found in channel 0
No hidden data found in channel 1
No hidden data found in channel 2

Steganalysis with Deep Learning

If we suspect that a particular steganography method is being used, we can directly use the appropriate model to make the prediction.

Aletheia has multiple Deep Learning models already trained, waiting to be used. For F5, we have the model aletheia-models/effnetb0-A-alaska2-f5.h5, which uses the neural network EfficientNet B0 [4].

Let’s make a prediction for actor A1:

./ effnetb0-predict actors/A1 aletheia-models/effnetb0-A-alaska2-nsf5.h5 0
actors/A1/1.jpg 0.086
actors/A1/10.jpg 0.143
actors/A1/2.jpg 0.418
actors/A1/3.jpg 0.226
actors/A1/4.jpg 0.11
actors/A1/5.jpg 0.074
actors/A1/6.jpg 0.393
actors/A1/7.jpg 0.668
actors/A1/8.jpg 0.256
actors/A1/9.jpg 0.282

Let’s now make a prediction for actor A3:

./ effnetb0-predict actors/A3 aletheia-models/effnetb0-A-alaska2-nsf5.h5 0
actors/A3/1.jpg 0.643
actors/A3/10.jpg 0.121
actors/A3/2.jpg 0.999
actors/A3/3.jpg 0.542
actors/A3/4.jpg 0.6
actors/A3/5.jpg 0.918
actors/A3/6.jpg 0.922
actors/A3/7.jpg 0.636
actors/A3/8.jpg 0.931
actors/A3/9.jpg 0.874

As we can see, for those two actors, the results are quite good.

In general, Machine Learning models, and more specifically Deep Learning models, are much more accurate than dedicated statistical attacks, such as the calibration attack performed above. However, using these models creates a new problem, which to this day is still not solved: the CSM or Cover Source Mismatch. This problem occurs when the images you want to analyze have different statistical properties than the ones used to train the model. As a consequence, the reliability of the prediction is greatly reduced.

In the next section, we will use Aletheia’s DCI [5] method, which allows us to deal with the CSM.

Can we trust the model?

As mentioned in the previous section, the CSM or Cover Source Mismatch problem occurs when the images to be analyzed have different statistical properties from those used to train the model, considerably reducing the reliability of the prediction.

Although attempts have been made to create diverse enough image databases to avoid this problem, in practice always appear image sets with CSM. With this problem in mind, the DCI method was created, which allows us to evaluate the reliability of the prediction.

For the DCI method to be applied, the images to be analyzed must come from the same actor. If the analyzed images are a mixture of images with different statistical properties, the DCI results will not be reliable.

You can check the results of some experiments with CSM here, where you can see how the precision of the model is reduced when there is CSM. You can also see the predictions made by DCI.

First we are going to see what happens if we use the DCI method with the actors A1 and A3, which do not have CSM.

With actor A1:

./ dci nsf5-color-sim actors/A1
actors/A1/2.jpg          0
actors/A1/4.jpg          0 (inc)
actors/A1/10.jpg         0
actors/A1/6.jpg          0
actors/A1/7.jpg          1
actors/A1/8.jpg          0
actors/A1/9.jpg          0 (inc)
actors/A1/1.jpg          0 (inc)
actors/A1/3.jpg          0
actors/A1/5.jpg          0 (inc)
DCI prediction score: 0.8

We see images marked “inc”, which are inconsistencies in the classification detected by DCI (the results obtained in these predictions are not very reliable). We have a DCI prediction of 80%, so the model is quite reliable and as we can see almost all images classify as cover.

With actor A3:

./ dci nsf5-color-sim actors/A3
actors/A3/2.jpg          1 (inc)
actors/A3/4.jpg          1 (inc)
actors/A3/10.jpg         0 (inc)
actors/A3/6.jpg          1
actors/A3/7.jpg          1
actors/A3/8.jpg          1 (inc)
actors/A3/9.jpg          1
actors/A3/1.jpg          1 (inc)
actors/A3/3.jpg          1
actors/A3/5.jpg          1 (inc)
DCI prediction score: 0.7

In this case, the model is a little less reliable, since we have a DCI prediction of 70%. Almost all images classify as stego.

Let’s now see what happens in CSM cases. Now we will use the actors B1 and B3, which come from the image database Imagenet, and as we will see, suffers from CSM.

You can check out the different actors provided for testing by Aletheia at this link.

Let’s start with B1, an innocent actor:

./ dci nsf5-color-sim actors/B1
actors/B1/2.jpg          0
actors/B1/4.jpg          1 (inc)
actors/B1/10.jpg         0
actors/B1/6.jpg          0 (inc)
actors/B1/7.jpg          0 (inc)
actors/B1/8.jpg          0 (inc)
actors/B1/9.jpg          0 (inc)
actors/B1/1.jpg          0 (inc)
actors/B1/3.jpg          1
actors/B1/5.jpg          0 (inc)
DCI prediction score: 0.65

For this set of images, the model does not seem very reliable and this is indicated by the DCI prediction of 65%.

Now let’s see what happens to B3, a guilty actor using nsF5:

./ dci nsf5-color-sim actors/B3/
actors/B3/2.jpg          1 (inc)
actors/B3/4.jpg          0 (inc)
actors/B3/10.jpg         1 (inc)
actors/B3/6.jpg          1 (inc)
actors/B3/7.jpg          0
actors/B3/8.jpg          0
actors/B3/9.jpg          1 (inc)
actors/B3/1.jpg          1 (inc)
actors/B3/3.jpg          1 (inc)
actors/B3/5.jpg          0 (inc)
DCI prediction score: 0.6

In this case the model does not work too well either. The DCI prediction is only 60%.

Faced with this type of scenario, two important questions arise:

What can we do if DCI tells us that the model is unreliable?

One way to proceed is to improve the model, that is, to train a new model with more images. But finding enough images of the same type to improve the database is not an easy task. For this reason the CSM is one of the most important open problems in steganalysis.

In any case, if we know that the model is not reliable, we can decide not to use it, which is always better than obtaining incorrect results and not knowing it.

Another option may be to apply the calibration technique explained above, which although less reliable, does not have the problem of the CSM, since it only uses the image to be analyzed.

As a reference, the accuracy of the Calibration attack applied to the Alaska2 testing set is about 65%. The accuracy of EfficientNet B0 with the same set is about 78%. So it can be a good alternative when the DCI indicates that the model is not reliable.

What happens when we have few images (<10) of the same actor?

One option is to try to get more images of the same actor. If it is not possible, we can always use the calibration technique, which only needs the image to be analyzed.


  1. F5 - A Steganographic Algorithm. Andreas Westfeld. 4th Information Hiding Workshop, Pittsburgh, PA, USA, April 25-27, 2001.

  2. Statistically undetectable JPEG steganography: Dead ends, challenges, and opportunities. J. Fridrich, T. Pevný, and J. Kodovský. In J. Dittmann and J. Fridrich, editors, Proceedings of the 9th ACM Multimedia & Security Workshop, pages 3-14, Dallas, TX, September 20-21, 2007.

  3. Steganalysis of JPEG Images: Breaking the F5 Algorithm, J. Fridrich, M. Goljan and D. Hogea, 5th Information Hiding Workshop, Noordwijkerhout, The Netherlands, 7-9 October 2002, pp. 310-323.

  4. EfficientNet: Rethinking model scaling for convolutional neural networks. Mingxing Tan and Quoc V Le. In International Conference on Machine Learning, 2019.

  5. Detection of Classifier Inconsistencies in Image Steganalysis. Daniel Lerch-Hostalot, David Megías. July 2019. Proceedings of the ACM Workshop on Information Hiding and Multimedia Security.


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