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FBI Wants You To Solve Encrypted Notes From Murder 466

coondoggie writes "The FBI is seeking the public's help in breaking the encrypted code found in two notes discovered on the body of a murdered man in 1999. The FBI says that officers in St. Louis, Missouri discovered the body of 41-year-old Ricky McCormick on June 30, 1999 in a field and the clues regarding the homicide were two encrypted notes found in the victim's pants pockets."
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FBI Wants You To Solve Encrypted Notes From Murder

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  • by elrous0 ( 869638 ) * on Tuesday March 29, 2011 @04:58PM (#35658446)

    The first note just looks a list of IP addresses associated with Twitter accounts communicating with a "Julian_Assange" and the second note appears to be in Arabic (which I can't read).

    I don't understand what either of those have to do with a 1999 murder in Missouri though.

    • Really? Because I found it to be a facebook account for bin laden
    • Re:I've cracked it! (Score:5, Informative)

      by elrous0 ( 869638 ) * on Tuesday March 29, 2011 @05:11PM (#35658622)

      In all seriousness, though, it would help to have these additional details:

      McCormick was a high school dropout, but he was able to read and write and was said to be “street smart.” According to members of his family, McCormick had used such encrypted notes since he was a boy, but apparently no one in his family knows how to decipher the codes, and it’s unknown whether anyone besides McCormick could translate his secret language. Investigators believe the notes in McCormick’s pockets were written up to three days before his death.

      Over the years, a number of CRRU’s examiners—who are experts at breaking codes—have puzzled over the McCormick notes and applied a variety of analytical techniques to tease out an answer. “Standard routes of cryptanalysis seem to have hit brick walls,” Olson noted. Our cryptanalysts have several plausible theories about the notes, but so far, there has been no solution.

      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. Or, short of new evidence, Olson said, “Maybe someone with a fresh set of eyes might come up with a brilliant new idea.”

      I think the code was probably meant for his eyes only, which means he probably constructed it using abbreviations and codewords that only he himself would understand. Without knowing those, well...good luck.

      • by Tom ( 822 )

        That's what they hope to find. If someone has another note, and maybe a translation for it - maybe the guy gave and explained it to him years prior - you have a chance, even with codewords.

        If it's not a cipher but a code, then without such additional help, it's almost hopeless.

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        It's a one time pad. The pad, in this case, seems to have resided in the head of the writer. If statistical methods of attack have failed, there is little hope of solving the code.

        One wonders what information would need saving in such a complex manner. It seems like the memory needed to remember the decoding scheme would be equivalent to the memory needed to remember the information in the first place. Perhaps the notes were intended for someone else, with a key to be provided at another time or location
        • It's a one time pad. The pad, in this case, seems to have resided in the head of the writer

          How do you know it is a one time pad?

        • by cforciea ( 1926392 ) on Tuesday March 29, 2011 @05:37PM (#35658940)
          Given that there are repeated segments of symbols, it is almost definitively not a one time pad.
          • And that in '99 he was 41, and it was handwritten. Probably not a computer guy, and probably a symbol system that's relatively easy for him to remember and apply reasonably quickly.

          • by dgatwood ( 11270 )

            Right. I was thinking the same. I notice, for example, TFRNE appears twice, and then there's the pairing of RLSE and CRLSE that are likely indicative of two words differing only by the addition of one letter, though not necessarily at the beginning.

            I think that P1 or that blob of not-quite-readable text in the upper right (ALSM?) is probably some sort of crypto key.

            I wish the pictures were large enough and crisp enough to read more easily. Just looking at it for a minute gave me a headache.

        • If [] [] I guess it didn't work.

          Aha! That's it! The FBI did it, and they accidentally killed him trying to get the key during a rubber-hose (metal wrench?) attack!

      • by Kjella ( 173770 )

        Well, true but it's a lot easier to verify a cracked key than it is to find it. If someone, somehow could guess those abbreviations and keywords and provide a plausible decryption it would be quite likely be the right answer. Almost no one can do strong crypto in their head, the solution is probably simple and it's easy to dismiss all the solutions that work like "if you XOR it with 0x745634FA66354345363EBD4647347546FABC346856324957967 you get the secret message" kind.

        • I'm guessing that he did something like leave out certain letters and use nicknames for people and objects at points. On top of whatever he was doing for a code. The reason why, is that as you said almost nobody can do strong crypto in their head and this thing hasn't been cracked using the standard methods. Meaning that it needs to be read without a machine and it doesn't follow an obvious pattern.

          Good luck to anybody trying to decode it because if victim has used nicknames that only the he knew the chance

      • by dcigary ( 221160 )

        Since he has been using the encryption since he was a boy, I'm thinking it's not a very complicated scheme. I'm betting it had something to do with the area he grew up in - for instance knowing what streets intersect with each other, and coming up with a cipher from that.

        If this is the case, you can throw statistical analysis and standard cryptanalysis out the window, as it won't make sense in this context.

        The only way they're going to get this solved is to get into his mind. Go back to where it all sta

      • by LWATCDR ( 28044 ) on Tuesday March 29, 2011 @05:45PM (#35659080) Homepage Journal

        Your probably correct but just a note to myself. If I ever kill someone I need to leave a message that is nothing but the output of a random number generator. That will keep them busy for decades :)

      • by mybecq ( 131456 )

        There appear to be a TON of clues in this document to help break it:

        1. Repetition: "5E" or "SE". Plenty of times.
        2. Numbers appear to be plain text. Three consecutive lines have 71, 74, 75 followed by the same four characters.
        3. Apostrophes and hyphens. Not all of these would be literal, but they are major clues.

        Plus, he has been using this "encryption" for years. The code is certainly something he could do in his head as he writes.

      • by Ecuador ( 740021 ) on Tuesday March 29, 2011 @06:14PM (#35659468) Homepage

        According to members of his family, McCormick had used such encrypted notes since he was a boy

        So, wouldn't they have more samples of the encryption to help with the decryption effort? If they have samples from when he was a boy, they might even be an earlier & easier code that evolved to the one in question...

      • by Al Al Cool J ( 234559 ) on Tuesday March 29, 2011 @06:35PM (#35659778)

        So chances are we'll never be able understand it. Shaka, when the walls fell.

    • Some of it looks like windows license keys. I guess between the two, we've solved it. Ballmer, in a field with the candlestick.
  • by Moderator ( 189749 ) * on Tuesday March 29, 2011 @05:00PM (#35658468)

    Here is a link to the notes: []

    Of course, what I got out of it was:

    "You are a stupid square idiot bald git aren't you? eh? I'm pointing at you, I'm pointing at you, but I'm not actually addressing you, I'm addressing the one prat in the country who has bothered to get a hold of this recording, turn it round and actually work out the rubbish that I'm saying. What a poor sad life he's got! Frankly your acts crap, anyway anybody could've done it, I hate the lot of you, bollocks to you!"

    • Mod parent funny. :D
    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      It would be nice if the FBI got off their arses and provided a copy of the notes in text format so that we could copy/paste them into something more useful as a format for saving and editing - or are they expecting each person to do this themselves?

      • by mastershake82 ( 948396 ) on Tuesday March 29, 2011 @05:14PM (#35658664)
        Well... since nobody has any clue as to how it is encrypted... perhaps there is something specific as to how it was written regarding how to decrypt. They don't know that there is, and they don't know that there isn't, so they've effectively provided you everything they have to work with. It's up to you if you think it should be worked in a different format.
        • by Motard ( 1553251 )

          Indeed. Look at the 'E's. Some are traditional squared off E's and some are like a C with a horizontal line. It could mean something, or nothing.

          • by Thud457 ( 234763 )
            in the first note, each group enclosed by parenthesis is a prime number of characters.
            • I didn't know that 20, 21 and 35 are prime numbers ...
              However, the three indented parentheses in the 5th-last to 3rd-last line have 19, 20 and 21 characters, in that order.

              Indeed, the last lines (those where everything is in parentheses) have the following numbers of characters in their parentheses:

              Also, the three indented parentheses look very similar; only a few characters are different between them.
              And of course, "NCBE" occurs almost everywhere at or near the end. And "TFRNE" seems also qui

          • It could mean something, or nothing.

            you know, it could also mean....something ELSE! spooky ;-)

        • just load it into google docs and you'll have an answer before your tea's done
        • by geekoid ( 135745 )

          You're correct, but they could have ALSO provided a plain text.

          • Even outside of all the nontextual stuff that would be lost, I'm not even sure what some of the letters are. They look very ambiguous. Who should decide what letter it actually is? I think it's less helpful to provide a plain text format, because then you could possibly be leading people who would be helpful down an incorrect path.
      • by NFN_NLN ( 633283 )

        It would be nice if the FBI got off their arses and provided a copy of the notes in text format so that we could copy/paste them into something more useful as a format for saving and editing - or are they expecting each person to do this themselves?

        It's possible the data contains more information than just straight text.
        Ie, the position, alignment could all be part of the code.

      • The other responses have made some points about possible additional information embedded in the spacing of the message, etc, but that seems a lot less important than the fact that some portions of the code are unclear and open to interpretation as to which letter is being represented. Is the second to last character on the first page an 'L', 'C', or '('? Can you say definitively enough for the FBI to rule out other options?
  • by wcrowe ( 94389 ) on Tuesday March 29, 2011 @05:01PM (#35658486)


  • Hmm... (Score:4, Funny)

    by tool462 ( 677306 ) on Tuesday March 29, 2011 @05:02PM (#35658494)

    There are a lot of nested parens in those notes. It's clearly Lisp code. They should bring Alan Turing in for questioning.

  • we are volunteers (Score:5, Interesting)

    by alphatel ( 1450715 ) * on Tuesday March 29, 2011 @05:02PM (#35658500)
    If the Fed really wants help they should consider providing:
    • Images at sizes greater than 100kb and 600x600 pixels.
    • Scans with resolutions higher than 96 dpi.
    • Tear up my dossier (I know I must be on it because I'm an American).
  • by bugs2squash ( 1132591 ) on Tuesday March 29, 2011 @05:03PM (#35658520)
    you must be a suspect
  • Talk about stubborn. They sure waited long enough to ask for help.

    • I'm glad that they don't share too much information, and only release stuff when it's really necessary. If I were somehow affected by a crime being investigated, I wouldn't want to have to submit to a complete loss of privacy to have a chance at justice.

  • Sorry guys, I know my writing's not the best, but no need to put the FBI on the case sheesh!

  • Maybe they're over thinking this. It could just be gibberish. Any word on if the guy was crazy or not?

    • One thought I had was this is a form of short hand cross with a minor cipher. Meaning that it's not intended to be a message for anybody else to understand, but to jog the memory of the victim. Meaning that it's more like an asymmetric encryption system than what the FBI is considering. Which would make it more or less impossible to solve because most of the information was destroyed when the person was killed.

      I'm not familiar enough with the case to know, but it seems rather unlikely that this is the only

      • That would make sense to me. And it's also possible he screwed up his own cipher. That stuff looks like it was scrawled pretty quickly. It is neat that the FBI is crowdsourcing this. I can easily see more of this coming in the future. Although, it would probably be most effective go bribe 4chan.

        One thought I had was this is a form of short hand cross with a minor cipher. Meaning that it's not intended to be a message for anybody else to understand, but to jog the memory of the victim.

      • by C_L_Lk ( 1049846 ) on Tuesday March 29, 2011 @07:57PM (#35660714) Homepage

        Has anyone considered that maybe these notes ARE the one time pad for decrypting another message that hasn't been discovered yet?

  • The notes look like Burma-Shave ads! Tell the FBI to round up any clean-shaven folks!



  • by Steauengeglase ( 512315 ) on Tuesday March 29, 2011 @05:16PM (#35658692)

    I can't violate the DMCA. Sorry.

  • Is it me, or does the writing suggest that he wrote every other letter spaced out, then went back in and wrote every other letter in the blanks?

    Perhaps the parentheses indicate sets of letters where he did this...?

    • by blair1q ( 305137 )

      No, it looks like he worked out the code letter by letter, moving his hand away from the page each time, possibly to use the pencil as a pointer in his code pad or to do intermediate calculations, instead of writing the letters straight through. The inference I'd make is that he made a cleartext version of this before encoding it, but didn't copy this encrypted version from a scratchpad.

      • by Fuzzums ( 250400 )

        no code pad. if you want to use it frequently, it will be something easy to do without any extras.

    • It's an interesting idea and the start of a simple enough encryption scheme for a kid to develop. Take signal and inject noise. Hmmm, how to write an algorithm that would analyze spaced out letters for statistical significance. Taking in to account that the amount of preceding or appended padding as well as the spacing of signal elements is unknown. Although a starting point is to assume an even spacing.

  • Lots of patterns (Score:4, Interesting)

    by davidbrit2 ( 775091 ) on Tuesday March 29, 2011 @05:21PM (#35658742) Homepage
    Weird. There are enough patterns and repetitions to make it look like it's just something simple, like a substitution cipher or similar. The sequence 'NCBE' appears enough times to be statistically meaningful, I'd wager.
  • The pirated Windows 98 key I used back then in the second pic.

  • What makes them think that these notes have any clue as to the perpetrator of the murder? They could be shopping lists that the victim made in code for his own amusement; apparently he had been doing so his whole life.

    Cases of murder are cracked daily without needing a note from the victim, coded or not; the FBI should pursue this case the same way. More than likely, the code is a red herring that's tying up resources and focus.

    • What makes you think they haven't and aren't pursuing other means?
    • Given that the murder happened in 1999, my guess is that they have exhausted those other avenues.
    • Re:FBI is grasping (Score:4, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday March 29, 2011 @06:01PM (#35659316)

      They could be shopping lists that the victim made in code for his own amusement

      I was about to give you a smart response, but I just realized that I read the wrong article (I read the actual FBI posting, not the commentary on the posting). From the original posting [], it seems like there's two reasons for the FBI wanting to crack the code: from a investigative standpoint, it might give some hint as to where the victim was before he was murdered, which might lead to other clues.

      However, since the cryptanalyst quoted also said, "Even if we found out that he was writing a grocery list or a love letter, we would still want to see how the code is solved. This is a cipher system we know nothing about," I'd guess that a large part is just wanting to know the answer to a puzzle that they couldn't solve. If you don't understand this impulse, you're obviously not human, or have no interest in bettering yourself.

  • don't do it!
  • or he is a secret genius with proteins.

  • by QX-Mat ( 460729 ) on Tuesday March 29, 2011 @05:41PM (#35659020)

    it's Welsh!

  • So much for the taxpayer funded NSA (No Scrutiny Allowed) or the drug funded CIA (Criminals In Action)
    • by blair1q ( 305137 )

      Neither of which is legally permitted to conduct domestic investigations. Not even if it's domestic espionage.

      Although, since the FBI is responsible for counter-intelligence on American soil, you'd think they'd have an NSA-quality codebreaking team.

      Which puts the stink on this whole deal. Either this is not a simple code, or they're testing us.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    I've retyped the code of the first note (to as good an extent as I can given the 600x600 resolution). Here's the results, and don't shoot me if there's a mistake:


    • Oops, wasn't logged in. Here's the second note.

      alpnteglse-se erte


      nmnrcbrnsepte2ptewsrcbreee?? (unsure about this)
      hmcrenmbencbe 1/2munddlse

      • by hldn ( 1085833 )

        quite obviously means day - week - month - year - millenium.

  • thats it? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by mugnyte ( 203225 ) on Tuesday March 29, 2011 @06:06PM (#35659360) Journal

    McCormick had used such encrypted notes since he was a boy

    and all we get are two examples? Lame.

        Why doesn't the FBI provide some of the research they've already done? Collaborate instead of simply asking someone to do your work! For example, higher quality scans, unique symbols, symbol frequency, symbol distance matrices, other known writings of the victim. Can we get some more environmental clues? victim's known proper nouns, background, travels, language(s) exposed to, favorite pop culture topics, etc. This all seems like a lot more detective work should be done. Solve the murder, not the puzzle.

    And they use a snail mail address for contact? Is this article from the 1950's?

  • Just give it to Angela on "Bones." She'll just happen to have recently finished writing some program that will figure it out in under an hour based on a grainy picture of the note.
  • Nice try, FBI. I'm not revealing my leet skills to you that easily.
    First you make a list of who can crack your uber-encryption, then you round us up.

  • The thing isn't too complex. He's using it to write long notes, so you don't want to do a lot of work encrypting your text.

    If he's using it since he was 9 the essence is probably not too difficult. Let's say a variation of pig Latin. (-be -se)
    He might have made some refinements over the years, but the concept probably stayed the same.

    Then there are the groups of 4 and 5 letters. No idea about that.

    • The 1st thing that popped in my mind upon seeing the notes was the game show "Wheel Of Fortune". Perhaps the letters in the note equate to the letters that would be picked to spell out/almost spell out what the author wanted to code/hide?
  • For handwritten notes to be writeable and readable quickly for anyone even with a great mind, you have to have "a method".

    You can't memorize an encryption algorithm and execute translation both ways so you can use it when writing on paper. You need to be able to "visualize" the results both ways quickly to be usable.

    Hence, I would like to know what phrases the man commonly used and whether other handwritten English text documents from him are in existence to use as do comparisons with? What types of activ

  • 42

    Does that make sense to anyone?

At work, the authority of a person is inversely proportional to the number of pens that person is carrying.