Thursday, April 27, 2006

Crypto-geeks and crypto-grampas, from Sicily to Langley campus

It's been a busy week in the world of amateur cryptography, especially for grown folks who never put away their Captain Crunch decoder rings.

First there is the British judge whose ruling in the Da Vinci Code copyright case included a surprise for careful readers. From the NY Times:

Justice Peter Smith's 71-page ruling in the recent "Da Vinci Code" copyright case here is notable for many things: the judge's occasional forays into literary criticism, his snippy remarks about witnesses on both sides, and his fluent knowledge not only of copyright law but also of more esoteric topics like the history of the Knights Templar.

But there is more to it than that.
...
The first clue that a puzzle exists lies in the typeface of the ruling. Most of the document is printed in regular roman letters, the way one would expect. But some letters in the first 13½ pages appear in boldface italics, jarringly, in the midst of all the normal words. Thus, in the first paragraph of the decision, which refers to Mr. Leigh and Mr. Baigent, the "s" in the word "claimants" is italicized and boldfaced.

If you pluck all the italicized letters out of the text, you find that the first 10 spell "Smithy Code," an apparent play on "Da Vinci Code." But the next series of letters, some 30 or so, are a jumble, and this is the mystery that needs to be solved to break the code.
...
It has been nearly three weeks since he handed down the ruling. Probably disappointingly for Justice Smith, nobody seemed to notice anything unusual about it when it was first released. But he alluded to the possibility that there was something more soon afterward as a throwaway line in an e-mail exchange with a reporter for The New York Times, saying, "Did you find the coded message in the judgment?"

If only the Mafia could emulate the master codesmithing of the Knights Templar. I was fascinated by a recent Discovery Channel News article on the Sicilian mafia's internal code for secret messages, not least of all because the code was so elementary. I even created a Wikipedia page on the topic, in the hopes that people with knowledge of the history of this tradition would contribute:

Pizzini
...
Pizzini are small slips of paper that the Sicilian mafia uses for high-level communications. Sicilian mafia boss Bernardo Provenzano is among those best known for using pizzini, most notably in his instructions that underling Messina Denaro become his successor.

Provenzano used a version of the Julius Caesar code, supposedly used by Caesar in wartime communications. The Caesar code involves shifting each letter of the alphabet forward three places; Provenzano's pizzini code did the same, then replaced letters with numbers indicating their position in the alphabet. Thus "mia" might become "16124", since m=13+3=16, i=9+3=12, and a=1+3=4. (Note that the alphabet used is the Italian alphabet, which has a slightly different order and number of characters than the Latin alphabet.)

For example, one reported note by Provenzano read "I met 512151522 191212154 and we agreed that we will see each other after the holidays..." This name was decoded as "Binnu Riina".
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A biographer of Provenzano also reports that Provenzano used a more complicated code, yet to be deciphered, which referenced selected words that Provenzano had underlined in his copy of the Bible.

Finally, there is a huge update to the story of the CIA's Kryptos sculpture, which plays a role in The Da Vinci Code. From the Wired News article:
For more than a decade, amateur and professional cryptographers have been trying to decipher an encrypted sculpture that sits on the grounds of the CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia. Three-fourths of the sculpture has already been solved.
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Kryptos, which means "hidden" in Greek, sits outside a cafeteria on the CIA grounds and consists of a large block of petrified wood standing upright, with a copper plate scrolling out of the wood like a sheet of paper in the shape of an S. The sculpture contains approximately 1,800 letters carved out of the copper plate in four sections, some of which form an encryption table used for deciphering the rest of the sculpture.
So far, no problem.
But now Jim Sanborn, the artist who created the Kryptos sculpture, says he made a mistake... It all comes down to a letter that Sanborn left out of the sculpture. He only recently realized the omission was leading sleuths down a misguided path.
Ouch! That's got to hurt, especially if you're one of these guys:
In 1999, California computer scientist Jim Gillogly solved three of the four sections. A CIA analyst named David Stein reached the same solution for those sections a year earlier, but his work remained unknown to anyone outside the CIA until Gillogly came forward with his solution.

The first section of the sculpture was decrypted to a poetic phrase created by Sanborn. The second refers to something possibly buried on the CIA grounds: Does Langley know about this? They should: It's buried out there somewhere. The third section is text from archaeologist Howard Carter's diary describing the opening of a door in King Tut's tomb Nov. 26, 1922.

The fourth part has remained stubbornly unsolved. The sculpture received a lot of renewed interest last year after Wired News published a story discussing author Dan Brown's references to it in the book jacket for The Da Vinci Code. Since then, thousands of new sleuths have been obsessing over the code. Chris Hanson, co-moderator of the Yahoo group and a Colorado programmer who runs a 3-D landscape software company called 3D Nature, created a model of the CIA's building complex, complete with landscaped grounds, to study the sculpture's surroundings for clues. Another member of the group even reportedly quit his job to devote time to cracking the code.

These are the kind of people about whom Malcolm X wondered at the good they could achieve if they only applied themselves to productive pursuits.