Wednesday, 30 March 2011

FBI appeals to puzzle fans for help solving murder case - Telegraph

FBI appeals to puzzle fans for help solving murder case

The FBI is appealing to amateur code breakers for help solving a 12-year-old murder case after its experts were confounded by encrypted notes found with the body.

Part of one of Ricky McCormick's encrypted notes. 

Ricky McCormick, 41, was dumped in a field in St Louis, Missouri, in June 1999.

Sherriff's officers discovered the two encrypted notes in his trouser pockets, which the FBI said were the "only clues" to the killing.

But over the years the Bureau's specialist Cryptanalysis and Racketeering Records Unit (CCRU) has been unable to decipher their contents.

"We are really good at what we do,” said Dan Olson, head of CCRU, “but we could use some help with this one.”

The notes contain more than 30 lines of encrypted text, a seemingly random mixture of letters, numbers, hyphens and parentheses.

"Standard routes of cryptanalysis seem to have hit brick walls," Mr Olson said.

The FBI turned to the American Cryptogram Association, a group of code-breaking hobbyists who were also mystified by Mr McCormick's notes, before issuing its public appeal yesterday.

"Maybe someone with a fresh set of eyes might come up with a brilliant new idea,” Mr Oslon explained.

According to his family, Mr McCormick had written encrypted notes since childhood which none of them knew how to decipher. He dropped out of high school but was considered "street smart", the FBI said.

Investigators hope the chance to help solve a murder will be enough to attract amateur code breakers, as no reward is available.

There is historical precedent: a cipher used by the perpetrator of the Zodiac murders in California in the 1970s was solved by a school teacher who saw it in a newspaper and contacted investigators. Three of the killer's ciphers have never been broken, however, and he has never been caught.

Today an active online community rich in computer security experts and mathematicians competes to solve famous ciphers for fun and kudos. Among their main current targets is the final panel of "Kryptos", a four-panelled sculpture at the CIA's headquarters which is inscribed with encrypted text.

Appealing for their help, Mr Olson said: "Even if we found out that [Mr McCormick] was writing a grocery list or a love letter, we would still want to see how the code is solved."

Many of the world's best professional code breakers work at The National Security Agency in the US and GCHQ in the UK. They also have access to some of the world's most powerful supercomputers to mount "brute force" attacks against encryption, which effectively solve ciphers by trial and error.