On this Day:

On March 28,1922, the 1st microfilm device was introduced. But as all dedicated readers of spycraft novels know, the microdot has been used to pass on Top Secret information long before that…

A microdot is text or an image substantially reduced in size to prevent detection by unintended recipients. Microdots are normally circular and around one millimetre in diameter but can be made into different shapes and sizes and made from various materials such as polyester or metal. The name comes from the fact that the microdots have often been about the size and shape of a typographical dot, such as a period or the tittle of a lowercase i or j. Microdots are, fundamentally, a steganographic approach to message protection.

In 1870 during the Franco-Prussian War, Paris was under siege and messages were sent by carrier pigeon. Parisian photographer René Dagron used a photographic shrinking technique to permit each pigeon to carry a high volume of messages, as pigeons can carry little weight.

Improvement in technology since then has made even more miniaturization possible. At the International Congress of Photography in Paris in 1925 Emanuel Goldberg presented a method of producing extreme reduction microdots using a two-stage process. First, an initial reduced negative was made, then the image of the negative was projected from the eyepiece of a modified microscope onto a collodium emulsion where the microscope specimen slide would be. The reduction was such that a page of text would be legibly reproduced in a surface of 0.01 mm2. This density is comparable to the entire text of the Bible fifty times over in one square inch. Goldberg’s “Mikrat” (microdot) was prominently reported at the time in English, French and German publications.

A technique comparable to modern microdots for steganographic purposes was first used in Germany between World War I and World War II. It was also later used by many countries to pass messages through insecure postal channels. Later microdot techniques used film with aniline dye, rather than silver halide layers, as this was even harder for counter-espionage agents to find.

A popular article on espionage by J. Edgar Hoover in the Reader’s Digest in 1946 attributed invention of microdots to “the famous Professor Zapp at the Technical University Dresden”. However, there never was a Professor Zapp at that university and microdot historian William White has denounced Hoover’s article as a “concoction of semitruths and overt disinformation”.

Nevertheless, this article was reprinted, translated, and widely and uncritically cited in the literature on espionage. Hoover’s Zapp has been wrongly identified with Walter Zapp, inventor of the Minox camera, which was used by spies but did not make microdots. Hoover appears to have conflated Emanuel Goldberg, who was a professor in Dresden, with Kurt Zapp who, late in the Second World War, was in Dresden and taught spies how to make microdots.[3] A World War II spy kit for microdot production was sometimes called a Zapp outfit.

In Germany after the Berlin Wall was erected, special cameras were used to generate microdots which were then attached to letters and sent through the regular mail. These microdots often went unnoticed by inspectors, and information could be read by the intended recipient using a microscope.

Popular culture

  • In the 2006 motion picture Mission: Impossible III a microdot was hidden on the back of a postage stamp and contained a magnetically stored video file.
  • In Superman #655 (Vol. 1, Sep. 2006), Clark Kent uses various microdots implanted throughout a suspense novel to read not only the novel but also numerous other works on various topics. The microdots were used here to further explore Superman’s newly enhanced mental capabilities.
  • In the 1967 movie You Only Live Twice, Tiger tells James Bond that his men found a microdot on a captured SPECTRE photograph, which he enlarges for Bond.
  • In the 1966 movie Arabesque a microdot was hidden in the eye of a goose on a parchment of hieroglyphs.
  • One of Philip K. Dick’s characters in A Scanner Darkly tells a drug-induced story wherein a worker at the local microdot factory had tracked the company’s entire inventory out into the parking lot on the sole of his shoe.
  • In the Nancy Drew PC game, Phantom of Venice, a clue is hidden using a microdot on an exclamation point.
  • The 2003 film Paycheck uses a very realistic rendering of a microdot as a key plot element. The handling of microdot technology in the film is worth noting as the viewer is shown both how well a microdot can be made to blend into a complementary environment as well as how much information such a dot can carry.
  • In the White Collar episode “As You Were” a microdot was used to send a covert message to Special Agent Clinton Jones.
  • In the Covert Affairs episode “Sad Professor” a microdot was used by one of the characters to store intelligence related to an operation that a language professor used who previously worked for the CIA.
  • In The Venture Bros. episode “Powerless In the Face of Death”; while in prison, the character Tiny Joseph comments that “they don’t usually write microdots by hand.”
  • In C.I.D. Episodes 201 and 202, “Case of the Multiple Puzzles”, a microdot was sold by an Intelligence Bureau officer to terrorists. The microdot had information about missile technology of India.
  • Lee Harvey Oswald famously wrote “micro dots” in his address book underneath the address for a printing company he worked for in 1962 and 1963.
  • In the 1965 television series Get Smart (Season 1, Episode 21 – “Dear Diary” original air-date Feb 12, 1966) Agent 86 and Agent 99 are shown the first “microdot” in the Spy City Museum. The comedic value is in the microdot being the size of a small plate.
  • In the 1968 television series It Takes a Thief (Season 1, Episode 8, “A Spot Of Trouble”), Agent Mundy is called in when sensitive plans for a weapon are stolen and later learned have been converted to a microdot.
  • In the Blake & Mortimer S.O.S. Meteors comic book, the foreign organization responsible for altering the weather patterns over Europe uses microdots embedded in letter envelopes to relay projected weather data to their clandestine stations. The microdot is however misattributed to “famous German inventor” Zapp.
  • In the television series The Avengers, the 1961 episode “One for the Mortuary”  has microdots and their transport as a major plot theme.
  • In Margaret Atwood’s 2019 novel The Testaments, the sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, microdots are used for communication between a high official of The Republic of Gilead and Mayday resistance members in Canada. The microdots were smuggled back and forth in print brochures and also inserted into the tattoo of a defector from Gilead to Canada.
  • In The Blacklist, episode 12 of season 7 “Cornelius Ruck (No. 155),” a CIA operative uses microdot to covertly send a list of operatives back to the US (per Wikipedia).

First, a Story:

Aside from Sir James Bond, who else in the UK is both a knight and a spy?

Sir Veillance…

Second, a Song:

The Smithsonian Channel is an American pay television channel owned by Paramount Global through its media networks division under MTV Entertainment Group. It offers video content inspired by the Smithsonian Institution’s museums, research facilities and magazines.

The channel features original non-fiction programming that covers a wide range of historical, scientific, and cultural subjects. As of February 2015, approximately 33.6 million American households (28.9% of those with televisions) receive Smithsonian Channel. It is also available as a video on demand service, depending on the service provider, and in various Internet streaming and download formats.

The channel was launched as a joint venture of Showtime Networks and the Smithsonian Institution as Smithsonian On Demand in 2006, and later became Smithsonian Channel in 2007. Smithsonian Channel Plus, a US$5 monthly subscription also offering access to the channel’s past content library, and incorporating the former Smithsonian Earth streaming service, was launched in 2018. As of the fall of 2020, it was merged into CBS All Access (later renamed Paramount+).

In February 2019, Smithsonian Channel: UK & Ireland launched on their domestic cable and satellite providers, along with Freeview.

According to the Smithsonian Channel, In 1971, the CIA sent coded messages to the Hanoi Hilton’s prisoners of war through powdered-drink packages. How they hid these cryptic messages was quite ingenious.

This video by The Smithsonian Channel is taken from: THE SPY IN THE HANOI HILTON (http://bit.ly/1HgK9V8).  I hope you enjoy this!


Thought for the Day:

“I wrote ‘The Spy Who Came in from the Cold’ at the age of 30 under intense, unshared personal stress and in extreme privacy. As an intelligence officer in the guise of a junior diplomat at the British Embassy in Bonn, I was a secret to my colleagues, and much of the time to myself.” – John le Carre

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Have a great day!

Dave & Colleen

© 2022 David J. Bilinsky and Colleen E. Bilinsky

1 Comment

  1. This is fascinating. I am particularly interested in the video about the use of the microdot for those imprisoned in the Hanoi Hilton. I have a friend, Pete Peterson, who spent 6 1/2 years as a POW in the Hanoi Hilton. He vowed he would never return to Vietnam, but in 1996 he was appointed by President Clinton to be the first US ambassador to Vietnam since the end of the war. Pete and I became friends when we were living in Marianna Florida. Pete was elected as our congressman prior to his ambassadorial appointment. If you are interested in more detail, there is an excellent article here: https://casebook.icrc.org/case-study/united-states-former-prisoner-war-mission-hanoi

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