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 …

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  1. Anonymous Coward
    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.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Two thumbs down

      For knowing the difference between a code and a cipher.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Joke

        Two, you were lucky...

        no one likes a smart arse.

      2. peyton?

        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"

        1. Anonymous Coward
          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. Cameron Colley

            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".

  2. Anonymous Coward
    Thumb Up

    I'm guessing...

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

    1. Anonymous Coward
      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. The Original Ash

      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.

  3. Anonymous Coward
    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?

    1. nichomach
      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...

  4. Anonymous Coward
    FAIL

    NSA

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

    1. Pascal Monett 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.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Who?

      There is No Such Agency.

  5. John Tserkezis

    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.

    1. copsewood
      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.

    2. matt 83

      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.

    3. Anonymous Coward
      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.

      1. RandSec
        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.

    4. Cameron Colley

      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.

    5. Tom 13

      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.

    6. Allan George Dyer Silver 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.

  6. Anonymous John

    It probably says::

    "The name of the murderer is ARRGGHH!"

    1. Graham Marsden
      Coat

      "Perhaps...

      "... he was dictating..."

  7. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Of course ....

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

    1. stranger

      Re: Of course ....

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

    2. dotdavid

      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.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Both

        That is all.

        1. Tom 13

          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.

          1. Anonymous Coward
            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.

  8. Si 1

    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.

  9. Richard 100

    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. Anonymous Coward
      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.

    2. Someone

      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.

  10. thefutureboy

    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.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      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!

  11. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Obvious one time pad reply

    Hopefully they tried it against newspapers he had access to.

  12. Peter Simpson 1
    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

  13. Pirate Dave
    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?

  14. SoupDragon
    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...

  15. Anonymous Coward
    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!

  16. Anonymous Coward
    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"

  17. Harry

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

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

  18. Trevor 3
    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.

  19. Tom 7 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.

  20. Connor

    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.

  21. Muckminded
    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.

  22. John Sturdy

    Nah -- it's obvious

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

  23. Mike Smith

    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.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Boffin

      @Mike Smith

      TMBTA: This might/may be the answer/algorithm

      BICBW: But I could be wrong

      AAMOF: Acronyms aren't multiples of five

      Am I close?

      1. Mike Smith
        Boffin

        Very close

        TMBTA - correct

        BICBW - correct

        AAMOF - As A Matter Of Fact

        IYSWIM. YMMV.

    2. tony trolle
      Grenade

      or drug drop off points

      would help if we knew his job

  24. Trevor 3

    I know what it is!

    Its STEP 3!

    Now we know what to do to generate profit!

    1. Stevie Silver badge

      Bah!

      You've been sniffing the underpants too long.

      You meant Step 2.

      Step 3 is Profits.

  25. mark l 2 Silver badge

    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

  26. 4HiMarks
    Pirate

    Thought it was a reprint

    w3 ar3 l33t h4x0rs. J00 FB1 guy5 w1ll n3v3r c4+ch u5. J00 ar3 n0+ k3w1 3n0ugh. 0ur h4x0r1ng w1ll d35troy j00. pH34r u5.

    from an old story on BBSpot:

    http://www.bbspot.com/news/2000/8/l33t_code.html

  27. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Pfft...

    It's a job ad, first x to get back with a solution get an all expenses paid trip to 935 Pennsylvania Avenue

  28. Chris Seiter

    foreign spoken language

    Going on the spoken language and it's not actually a code, could it just be a language he had heard on TV and written his own bad phonetics for it as a kid? Speak it and run it through a ????<>English translator and see what comes out.

  29. Shane Kent
    WTF?

    WTF?

    Is it just me, or when you save the enlarged images they appear to be a 72dpi fax? I can't tell what is what, character over character, character next to character, stroked out, etc.

    Maybe the FBI needs "help to crack mystery code version 2.0" with "real" large graphics that are several MBs instead of KBs.

  30. Acme Fixer
    Black Helicopters

    I'm suspicious of this.

    I'm suspicious of this. What puzzles me is why the FBI's crack team of specialists in this field would not be able to solve something a high school dropout made up. Maybe the FBI is trying to get under cover cryptanalysts to come out, so they can secretly monitor their life to see if they're working for a foreign government.

    Or maybe they'll offer the amateur cryptanalyst a job...

  31. TS

    He was "encrypting" notes to himself

    If I'm writing notes to myself, I don't really need to encrypt it... I just need to put stuff down that nobody can read, but I can still recognize.

    I know that

    "b" means "butter", so I write "brlerr"

    "e" means "eggs", so I write "e343ffe"

    "p" means "paper towels", so I write "p1"

    "qfl" means "quaters for laundry, so I write "qfl".

    brlerr e343ffe p1 qlf

    Go ahead and try to decode that.

  32. skeptical i

    But how will they KNOW they've cracked it?

    Since the code is unique to Mr. McCormick, his experiences, and his own brain quirks, and does not have to be consistent or logical ("*I* know what I mean") how will the "correct" crack be determined? Nifty little puzzle, though.

  33. tony trolle

    I want the (.)(.) code

    the handwriting looks better than the translation on wiki.

    page two is more hurried than the first

    its like a short hand system which is very hard to decode if you

    don't have the context or the start of the notes

    the letter grouping is odd 4 then sometimes 5

    but then some groups have dots.

    I think it's notes for his lawyer, I want more history

  34. kain preacher

    what the code means

    He create a machine to record the thoughts of politicians. What you see are there thoughts transcribed on paper. So what the FBI has been trying to crack or the thoughts process of a politician.

  35. Chezstar

    Directions?

    I'm assuming the FBI is composed entirely of men, because it has taken them 12 YEARS to ask for help :)

    If this was a roadtrip, the car would be bogged 4 miles off a minor track in the middle of the Nevada desert with a couple of skeletons in the front seats.

    For my tuppence worth, I agree with skeptical i, it could be any combination of codes or phrases and even mixed in random junk, so it would be very hard to know if you are on the right track.

    Did the FBI freeze his brain? Can we reanimate him and just ask? :)

  36. Anonymous Coward
    Joke

    Use Psychics !!

    Psychics will know what it says, after all they talk to dead peoples....!

    What?

    Psychics are bunk you say?

    Surely you jest.

    1. Mystic Megabyte
      Paris Hilton

      @AC 09:21 Use Psychics !!

      I knew you would say that!

      Paris , she saw it coming.........

  37. Allan George Dyer Silver badge

    It's...

    a list of serial numbers and license keys, in case he needed to reinstall. Just cross-reference to what was installed on his computer.

  38. Real Ale is Best
    Joke

    Perl

    Has anyone tried running it as a Perl script?

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Looks like line noise? Yep, it's Perl

      When they ran it, it came back with "Just another Perl hacker."

  39. A J Stiles

    Spot the computer game

    For some reason, this reminds me of an old computer game from my mis-spent youth :)

    It probably says something like:

    TANGY WALDATE TART

    300 LEMONS

    30 KG CASTOR SUGAR

    15 KG SEMOLINA

    68 KG SHORTCRUST PASTRY MIX

    15 KG WALNUTS

    30 KG DATES

    30 KG MARGARINE

    300 EGGS

    ICING SUGAR

  40. andy 45

    Double Dutch?

    It looks to me like it says

    Fa shizzle dizzle, its the big Neptizzle

    with the Snoopy D-O-Double Jizzle.

    I could be wrong, of course.

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