Feeds

back to article FBI asks for help to crack mystery code in 12-year-old murder case

FBI experts are seeking the help of the public to make sense of two encrypted notes found on a murder victim that have stumped detectives for years. Ricky McCormick, 41, was found dead in a field in St Louis, Missouri, back in June 1999. Two encrypted notes found in his pockets have defied the best efforts of detectives and FBI …

COMMENTS

This topic is closed for new posts.

Page:

Anonymous Coward

Um ...

"Members of McCormick's family report that he had used coded notes since he was a boy, without letting anyone in his family into the secret of how to decipher the messages."

I thought one decoded codes and deciphered ciphers.

6
8
Anonymous Coward

Two thumbs down

For knowing the difference between a code and a cipher.

1
2
Joke

Two, you were lucky...

no one likes a smart arse.

4
0

re: two thumbs down

No, they're for being a lousy pedant.

fyi, from the OED,

decipher: To make out the meaning of (anything obscure or difficult to understand or trace)

Note the word "anything" - i.e., doesn't have to be a "cipher"

3
2
FAIL

I thought this was an IT forum ...

... where technical precision mattered. Not sure what the OED has to do with anything, as it's not a technical dictionary.

1
0

The OED is irrelevant to this.

The problem here may actually hinge on knowing whether it is a code, cipher, or combination of both -- to ignore the basic definitions* of such words in the article does seem a tad lax.

*the actual mathematical ones, not the "commonly used".

1
0
Thumb Up

I'm guessing...

There is no message in them, and he is fucking with them.......

2
0
Thumb Up

RE: I'm guessing

to tell you the truth; If I thought I was going to die suddenly, I'd certainly do it :)

2
0

Prior Art

The Unabomber did exactly this. The investigation into cracking the codes was lengthy and expensive, in fact the most expensive investigation on record.

They were all rubbish. In the end, his brother recognised his handwriting and shopped him.

1
0
Anonymous Coward

Get the best

The Feds should just put it in a puzzle mag with a telephone number. Simon will be ringing them in no time with the answer. or maybe he learnt his lesson?

9
0
Joke

That film made a lot more sense

after I realised that it wasn't meant to be Bruce playing the autism sufferer who was incapable of normal human interaction...

2
0
FAIL

NSA

The worlds best funded code breaking organisation can't decipher it ?

2
0
Silver badge

That's exactly why they want to know how it works

Because then they can improve on the concept and make a new generation of ciphers.

3
0
Anonymous Coward

Who?

There is No Such Agency.

0
0
Silver badge

I don't feel so bad now.

If they can't crack a 12 year old crypto, they have no chance of scratching modern day techniques?

But this raises another issue:

If Security By Obscurity is viewed as possibly insecure, and open algorithms are considered secure, but since they're well documented, it becomes viable to brute-force it in reasonable time via either distributed computing or dedicated hardware...

Then this kinda breaks that belief doesn't it?

Your code doesn't *have* to be secure, as long as no-one knows about it, it becomes inherently secure. It's as if there is no-one left who can crack an undocumented code, so it can't be cracked at all.

2
1
Boffin

security by obscurity (SBO) better for an individual than a general cipher

Here is a code which captures the thoughts of a single individual for their own purposes, which seems unlikely to be usable as a general purpose cipher (GPC). The fact of insufficient obscurity with GPCs by definition, typically due to the kind of progressive leakage of secrets which is inevitable with a GPC, doesn't prevent SBO applying to an individual thought encoding system which an individual has developed and optimised for their own purposes since childhood.

The problem cryptanalysts will have is that there is probably no way of knowing at what level (words, ideas, concepts, characters, messages etc.) the symbols in his cipher refer to. So without the right lateral thinking idea it is difficult to see how and where they are going to start. Many interested eyeballs seem more likely to come up with a solution which depends initially upon a lateral thinking idea beyond the apparent capacity of the cryptanalysts who have worked on this so far.

8
0

re I don't feel so bad now

Not really, the only reason these notes are difficult to decode is that they aren't very long and we have no idea what they contain.

If there was a lot more of this code available and you had a rough idea what even a tiny amount of it contained cracking it would be simple (probably).

So a unique coding system like this is going to be pretty good for paper notes you keep in your pocket and destroy after you're finished with them but not much good for keeping records (since you can make a good guess at the contents of some records) or keeping large amounts of data (as that would give more information about the code being used).

I'd be interested in knowing how well modern code breakers would fair at working out what Egyptian hieroglyphics mean without the Rosetta Stone. Seems like a similar problem but with a lot more text available.

6
0
Boffin

@John Tserkezis

> Your code doesn't *have* to be secure, as long as no-one knows about it, it becomes inherently secure.

There are a lot of really bad crypto algorithms that are really easy to re-invent. E.g. some muppets recently used "a system which used Excel transposition tables, which they had invented themselves. But the underlying code system [...] had been used and described by Julius Caesar in 55BC." See http://www.theregister.co.uk/2011/03/22/ba_jihadist_trial_sentencing/

Good encryption algorithms give you a guarantee "if you use this well-known algorithm, and keep the key secret, then it requires this much effort to break". Obviously, you pick an algorithm where the effort to break is more than your adversaries can afford in the timescales you care about.

If you invent something yourself, you can't guarantee it's strong. It's easy to invent something that you can't crack yourself, that then gets broken in minutes by an expert. Of course, you _might_ be lucky and invent something hard-to-crack, but you probably won't.

In this case, it probably helps that the FBI only have a small amount of ciphertext - that makes it much harder for them to crack the code. If they had access to a crib (i.e. one note in both encrypted and unencrypted forms) I suspect they'd break the entire cipher very quickly.

5
1

The problem with "security through obscurity":

In cryptography you're generally enciphering/deciphering something in a known human, or computer, language -- so even using an obscure cypher if you're not careful there's a pattern.

If you use an unknown (or effectively unknown) language then encipher the text could become virtually uncrackable -- but you would then have to teach anyone you communicated with that language and learn and remember it yourself as well as having to deal with situations where the language didn't cover what you were trying to say, like new technology.

In fact, I suspect that this guy was doling something akin to how I used to take notes for my A-Levels -- I'd scribble so badly that the only way I could read the notes was because I virtually remembered them anyhow and just needed prompts. Just writing, for example, the letter[s] of a word you find most significant may be enough for you to recall something, but would be hard for someone else to work out. I mean, would you know what NASA, UTC or PCMCIA stood for if you had never seen them expanded? Looking at this I remembered I can never recall "Carrier sense multiple access with collision detection" without seeing its initials.

2
0
Unhappy

Sorry, It Is Not That Easy

"Good encryption algorithms give you a guarantee "if you use this well-known algorithm, and keep the key secret, then it requires this much effort to break"."

Sadly, no well-known algorithm has any such guarantee, including the OTP. Belief in cryptographic strength is belief, not demonstrable fact. Math proofs almost never apply to real systems in practice.

0
4
Silver badge

There's an even older and more interesting (from the money point of view)

unsolved code problem out there. Involves some gold from the confederates during the civil war. They even believe the key to the code is the US constitution. Allegedly a group of soldiers were tasked with transporting the gold and were being harried by the north. So they buried the gold then wrote out the manifest and the location in and encrypted form. For the manifest they used numbers to indicate how many letters to count from the last letter used to get to the next. But no one has ever cracked the map algorithm.

Read about that one ages ago in a C-64 computing magazine. The article provided a code substitution program you were supposed to type in and then use to crack the code.

1
0
Bronze badge
Joke

The problem is...

they've been waiting for new cypher-text for 12 years.

Seriously, it would be easier to break if it was still being used to encrypt stuff. However, I think your plan of "ask someone to create a new algorithm and encrypt a message in it, then kill them before they've told anyone, including you, what the algorithm is" has a few problems before it can be widely adopted.

2
0

It probably says::

"The name of the murderer is ARRGGHH!"

15
0
Silver badge
Coat

"Perhaps...

"... he was dictating..."

1
0
Anonymous Coward

Of course ....

... they could have asked their handwriting experts to transpose the notes into something approaching legibility.

4
1

Re: Of course ....

or at the very least give us a high resolution scan to look at!

3
0
Silver badge

But

But then something that looks unimportant but isn't might have been missed, not to mention transposing errors.

No, a scanned image is better.

0
1
Anonymous Coward

Both

That is all.

1
0
Silver badge

No just a high quality scan.

if you have a transcript the transcript makes assumptions that you will also tend to follow even if you are looking at the scan. Of course he he transposed something during the encryption process, you're pretty much screwed anyway.

0
0
Anonymous Coward

Yes But

I have little in the way of handwriting analysis skills and am going to make a bunch of bad assumptions as to what some of the letters are.

And I can handle multiple and conflicting information sources.

So both.

0
0

Re: Of course ....

How do we know the style of the writing isn't integral to the code? A letter with a different height from standard could be significant in this code so the original text has to be supplied.

That said, the way the second one has circles around everything makes it look like a todo list to me.

0
0

ejp mrrfd s nööfx zozör

Looking at the handwriting the first thing I´d ask is was the victim Dyslexic?? ( No Joke intended)

After all if he was his spelling might be bad enough to nullify most computer based crypto tools.

Hint to Title: Use a German Keyboard for starters ;)

1
0
Boffin

@Richard 100

"who needs a blldy title"

I suspect you meant to write: "ejp mrrfd s nöppfx zozör"

You just used one key to the right of the desired letter on your keyboard. The s going to either 'a' or 'I' was a big help too.

4
0

Dyslexic

I’d also go with profound dyslexia. It looks like the preparations for an event, with the two pages starting “Monday make new...” and “All pint glasses…”

N → and

WLD → would

FLRSE → flowers

MTLSE → motels

HTLSE → hotels

MRE → more

PLSE → please

NCRSE → increase

MUND → Monday

I’d love to know what NCBE represents. I assume that Ricky would have taken an extra large in what ever attire he was going to be wearing.

I think the FBI wants an educational specialist, not a cryptanalyst.

0
0

Hmmmmm

Something using dates I reckon hence at the bottom of one page is:

D-W-M-Y (day, week, month, year) followed by MIL which obviously means MILLENNIUM

There is also 71, 74 and 75 on the other page, which probably mean something really important....maybe....errr....dunno...

I think he was concerned with the panic over the Millennium Bug and was about to spill the beans when someone bumped 'im orf.

0
0
Anonymous Coward

Re:Hmmmm

The bit that stood out to me was the string NCBE.

It crops up _a lot_. Was trying to think what you might use that much, and in general text all i could think of was punctuation. Could it be a period? Especially as it does follow numbers in some cases.

Just a guess though, haven't a hope in hell of cracking it but if I find some time spare I might have a better look just for the sake of it!

0
0
Anonymous Coward

Obvious one time pad reply

Hopefully they tried it against newspapers he had access to.

0
0
Silver badge
Coat

Can't believe it

"Be sure to drink your Ovaltine"

either that or "remember to pick up milk, bread and eggs"

//mine's the one with the rotors in the pocket

4
0
Coat

Lisp?

I'd get a few Lisp programmers to look at it.

It seems more like txt - meant to be read aloud rather than decrypted, but then I was never much good at either. Maybe I'd better just stick with Objective C...

0
0
Pirate

do we

really want to give the FBI the answer to a crypto they can't crack? Is there to be nowhere safe for us pirates anymore?

1
0
Anonymous Coward

How did he die?

Detective 1: He was beaten over the head with an Enigma machine that he got from ebay but never paid for.

Detective 2: We'll never solve this one!

3
0
Thumb Up

trivial

using my trusty bull cypher I can see it starts

"Everyone loves a good conspiracy theory, and this one will really give the faithful some kicks..." bahh blahh "Kennedy" blahh blahh "Roswell", and closes with "Assange call me if you want you insurance to be secure"

0
0

a mixture of "letters, numbers, dashes, and parentheses"

... which probably document either his shopping list or his next appointment with the dentist.

0
0
Pint

It must be a simple one

Judging by his handwriting, he didnt have another bit of paper to work the cipher out with. He just wrote it out from his head.

This means he either had a substitution table in his head, or another language he 'invented' or some other form of easy encryption.

They said he has been doing this since school. I wonder what school boy encryptions there were at the time he could have modified?

Could be a variation on the tic tac toe board kiddy thing or something? Write the alphabet out one way, mix the boards up. A-Z again to get a substitution matrix which you remember for 40 years, then + 13 on any letter when it comes to writing it out.

the empty cells can be + - or any symbol you like.

Easy to do in your head.

1
0

You have to bear in mind...

That the man was no genius, and that he had to decrypt them on the fly, as he read them, so it is unlikely to be some brilliant method of encryption. I agree with SoupDragon, it looks like it is to do with the way it is read, rather than some clever code.

The one marked P1 looks like directions to me but I don't think we'll ever know.

1
0
Silver badge

Looks like aargle to me

that's the universal language of drunks that can be used by two or more drunks to communicate with even if they don't share a common language.

Drink 18 pints and look again - you'll understand every letter of it. Then right it down the translation.

When you sober up you will have another page written in aargle but more importantly you will have lost interest and get a life again.

5
0
Joke

Let's ask Follywood

Theory 1: If his head was shaved, the notes were jotted on toilet paper, and he had a Violet Carson in one hand, then clearly he came to disfavor with a mutant from Larkhill.

Theory 2: Dr. Eleanor Arroway, or one of her alien consorts, bumped him off for stealing portions of her notes on how to build "the machine".

Theory 3: He was just on the verge of determining how to move faster than bullets. Unfortunately, there was no matrix.

0
0

Nah -- it's obvious

It must be his notes on the Voynich Manuscript. He was killed to keep the manuscript contents secret.

0
0

shopping list

I'd laugh if after all this publicity and 12 years of trying to crack the code it was finally cracked and containined.

1 pint of milk

1 loaf of sliced white

6 cans of bud

snickers bar

2
0
Bronze badge

TMBTA - BICBW AAMOF

I wonder if the key is that the groups of letters are acronyms for phrases that the bloke knew well? Connor's probably right - if the chap wasn't an egghead it would have to be something he could remember easily.

Looking at P1, if they are directions, TFRNEN'9 could mean something like Take First Right North Exit N9, where N9 is a road number.

0
0

Page:

This topic is closed for new posts.