How the Story of Secret Writing Can Help Us Understand Headlines Today


Kristie Macrakis is Professor in the School of History, Technology and Society at Georgia Tech. Her books include Surviving the Swastika: Scientific Research in Nazi Germany  (Oxford, 1993), Science Under Socialism: East Germany in Comparative Perspective (Harvard, 1997), East German Foreign Intelligence (Routledge, 2010), Seduced by Secrets: Inside the Stasi’s Spy-Tech World (Cambridge, 2008), and Prisoners, Lovers, and Spies: the Story of Invisible Ink (Yale, 2014).

Kristie Macrakis gave a lecture How the Story of Secret Writing Can Help Us Understand Headlines Today at the Havighurst Colloquium “Secrecy, Sovereignty, and Power” organized by Neringa Klumbytė, Associate Professor of Anthropology, on September 15, 2014. During Macrakis’ visit to Miami University, Dennis Kontorovich, a MU REES major, interviewed her about her research on secret writing, digital surveillance, secrecy and security in authoritarian and democratic states, and Edward Snowden’s case.

Dennis Kontorovich: So, how did you decide to write a biography on invisible secret writing?

Kristie Macrakis: Well, the short story is I had been researching the Stasi, the East German secret police, and I had been working on their secret writing methods. I couldn’t get the right files for quite a long time. When I finally got the right files, I wrote a chapter on the files in one of my previous books. As I was doing that I was looking at the literature on invisible ink and, of course, my book is broader, it is really on invisible secret writing, and I noticed there was no book on invisible ink. This became a real problem when the night before I was going to give a lecture in a class I went to the library to get a book on it and couldn’t find one. This made me realize that there was a real need for a book like this, so I researched a little and couldn’t find much and just assumed it was all written in invisible ink and almost threw in the towel. Then a colleague of mine who wrote a huge book on cryptography kept nudging me and saying come on you need to write this. So I started digging a little more and I started finding some very cool stories. Also, it helped that there were a lot of declassified material from WWI and WWII. That was when everything became very very intriguing to me because there was not a book out there like this.

Dennis Kontorovich: When you were doing all of this data gathering how could you tell if your data was reliable?

Kristie Macrakis: It was pretty easy to tell if the materials themselves were reliable and authentic. As I historian, if I were going to write a technical history of invisible ink or steganography it would not have been very exciting. It would have been very technical, I could write about the chemicals and paper and put us all to sleep. So, what I found kind of interesting was to chart the evolution of secret writing through the stories of people who used it. So I began to look for these stories and in the process I would find references to invisible ink. That is when I could use modern digital methods, for instance, getting online on Google books and searching for several key words like secret ink and secret writing, and I would get leads to stories. Some items kept coming up over and over again in my searches, so that meant that they must be important because a lot of people are writing about this, so I would investigate further. That is one initial method to use for digital history. I would also do searches for books from the 18th century and find references there that would lead me to bigger discussions of things. Also, I used standard historical methods by reading primary and secondary sources. I got some leads from the literature on the history of cryptography codes and cyphers because when people were going to be using codes and cyphers they were most likely going to be using invisible ink as well.

Dennis Kontorovich: So then this book is not only written for a scholarly audience, it is really targeted at an everyday interested reader.

Kristie Macrakis: Yes, I used stories to make the book feel like a story, while also tracking secret methods throughout time. Everything from secret messages being tattooed on slaves’ scalps and writing on blank tablets with wax covering it during the time of the Greeks to the modern world where Al Qaeda hides secret messages in pornographic sites using digital steganography. For example, investigators found a travel drive with a pornographic movie on it and in that movie there were secret messages about Al Qaeda.

Dennis Kontorovich: okay, so while you were doing all this research what was the most surprising or interesting secret that you discovered while looking through all the data?

Kristie Macrakis: That’s a good question! Well the first real secret I found actually got me interested in the whole topic. I was in the archives looking for information on the Stasi and I was getting fatigued because I wasn’t finding anything very interesting, which happens when you are a historian, you have to sift the dirt for gold. Finally an employee of the archives handed me this thin file and I thought this could be interesting. So I opened it and it was stamped top secret in red in German, like very top secret in red and I thought wow this is, this could be pretty important. It was from the 1970s and it was a secret formula for invisible ink. This was very unique because spy agencies around the world never reveal their formulas for invisible ink. You don’t want anyone to know your methods or sources in the spy world so they are kept very secret.  My heart started beating fast and the formula was very technical, so I actually worked with a chemist and we reproduced this secret formula and got it to work. That was a big secret, to answer your question, because it was top secret and I had been looking and looking and couldn’t get any invisible ink formula. This was all very interesting because during WWI and WWII there was this constant arms race to develop secret writing because one side would develop something and then the other side would figure it out and so it would go. So it would get more and more sophisticated.  I think that these kinds of technical secrets add value to the book because while most readers won’t understand all the technical aspects it will make everything in the book seem very real, more so than before.

Dennis Kontorovich: What do you think is the future of secret writing?

Kristie Macrakis: I really believe that the present and the future of secret writing is digital steganography. It is not surprising that everything has become digitized, as that is where the world is going.

Dennis Kontorovich: So, in the digital age a lot of people are scared, you know the NSA can look at my computer and my emails and Google is putting ads up on my email based on what is in my email. So where do you personally feel is that line between safety and security and the right to privacy that we as Americans are accustomed to?

Kristie Macrakis: Well as an American, I really want my privacy and it is very disturbing even with Google scanning my emails and getting key words. Both the NSA and Google are chilling in their own way. You know Google is watching because they want to improve business, and not just Google, all the online services. The NSA of course is scarier because it is all about security and even when you are not a terrorist, traitor, or a spy they are still monitoring you. They know about your private life. They have to learn about everything if they are going to monitor you. I don’t like it as a concerned citizen, but the question to ask is would they not be fools to do what civilian companies are doing? They have the technology available so would they be fools not to data mine like Facebook and Twitter are doing. I would simply advise writing everything the old fashion way if you don’t want it coming back at some point in the future.

Dennis Kontorovich: So, moving on with this topic, what do you think about this whole Edward Snowden situation? Do you think it was a breach of national security or the truth that the public needed to hear?

Kristie Macrakis: I am actually a great admirer of Edward Snowden and I think he did the right thing. It was a real eye opener and he let the world know about how the NSA had overreached. I think that there is a real danger of organizations like this overreaching and it has happened before in our history.  We did not always have oversight committees, those were developed in the 1970s precisely because the CIA was corrupted by secrecy and started abusing the powers of secrecy. I think the world needed someone like Edward Snowden to show what the NSA was really doing because their actions were almost criminal as far as I’m concerned. I think he did a few things wrong, but what most people don’t know is that he is really the third whistle blower in a line of whistle blowers and the first two tried to go to the authorities, but nothing came out of it. People have tried to blow the whistle before but they have had their careers destroyed for it.  No one really listened, so I think it took a big blow up like the Edward Snowden situation to get people to really listen to how the NSA was overstepping. Frankly, I don’t know what has happened now to change the situation except people wanting to protect their butts in Washington. They are more into damage control than reforms.

Dennis Kontorovich: On the flip side of that, what if God forbid a terrorist attack happens and everyone will ask why didn’t the NSA know about this?  What about all the attacks they have stopped where the public never knew anything was wrong?

Kristie Macrakis: Well the NSA claims that they have stopped 54 terrorist attacks to defend their actions during the Snowden situation. However, they are not going into the details of these attacks with the investigation committee, so we just have to take it on faith. Unfortunately, how can we trust them when they violated our trust already so much? The other thing to consider is that these bureaucracies have grown into such huge monsters that security has become such a small part of what they do everyday. The amount of time and money they spend on detecting terrorists is actually very small; I think you just have to reform the whole system at this point.

Dennis Kontorovich: What does it take in your opinion for reforms to actually happen so these organizations, like the NSA, can focus more on our security and not on pushing papers?

Kristie Macrakis: Well, when you see people being beheaded on YouTube and on TV you do get scared. In my opinion, I don’t think that all this war is helping the situation at all. I think that maybe America should just get out of the Middle East and focus on national security more. Maybe they should reform to see why so many people hate the U.S., and try to solve that issue instead of just bombing the problem to death.

Dennis Kontorovich: What would you tell students who are interested in working in intelligence?

Kristie Macrakis: I would tell them that you always get to choose if you want a Middle East assignment or not, so if you want to stay alive I would stay out of there. Really, I think that people need to shed their James Bond view of intelligence because they will be very disappointed. Largely, the real world of intelligence is sitting behind a desk and not in the field because of how big the bureaucracy has gotten. You need a lot more people behind desks. I think basically you should investigate what you would be doing before just volunteering yourself.

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