Data Encryption: The FBI Needs Your Help To Crack A Code (And Solve A Murder).

The Federal Bureau of Investigation is asking the public for help.  In 1999, two encrypted notes were found on a murdered man.  The FBI’s Cryptanalysis and Racketeering Records Unit (CRRU) and the American Cryptogram Association have worked on decoding the message to no avail, and are asking (wondering?) if the public can shed any light on the situation.  If you ever needed public proof on the power of data encryption to protect information, here you have it.

High School Dropout, Street Smart

First off, there is no reward.  Well, no financial reward but I guess you get bragging rights.  After all, you “beat” the FBI.

If you’re still interested, you can find the background story here.  In a nutshell, the victim was a high school dropout who’s dabbled with encryption since he was a boy.  The notes were found on his body, and I guess it’s hoped that the notes’ contents will answer who or why man was murdered, or at least where he was when it happened.

You can get high-resolution copies of the notes here, as well as some more background straight from the horse’s mouth.

Why Go Public?

The FBI is very good at what it does:

“We are really good at what we do,” said CRRU chief Dan Olson, “but we could use some help with this one.”

In fact, Ricky McCormick’s [the victim’s] encrypted notes are one of CRRU’s top unsolved cases. “Breaking the code,” said Olson, “could reveal the victim’s whereabouts before his death and could lead to the solution of a homicide. Not every cipher we get arrives at our door under those circumstances.”

As Cooney at commented, “One has to wonder though, if the FBI can’t figure this out, who can?” (Maybe the boys and girls over at the NSA?)

Ultimately, the purpose behind going public seems to be this:

To move the case forward, examiners need another sample of McCormick’s coded system—or a similar one—that might offer context to the mystery notes or allow valuable comparisons to be made.

Encryption is Powerful Stuff

While the case has been open since 1999, it’s doubtful that someone at the FBI has been working on it continuously for the past 12 years.  But, that’s probably not the reason why the FBI hasn’t managed to crack the code.  Sometimes, the code is just too powerful.  For example, the one-time pad is proven to be impossible to crack, assuming it was used correctly, and chances are no amount of computing power will crack it.

There are many ways of encrypting data, some of them not as fail-proof as the one-time pad.  But, just because they’re not completely fail-proof doesn’t mean that they’re not useful.  Take AES-256, for example, the algorithm powering AlertBoot endpoint security software.  While it can be cracked in theory, it would require using all the available computing power in the world right now, and it would still be decades before a significant dent could be made on cracking it.

Which is what makes it an excellent tool for powering encryption software for laptops and other portable devices.

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