The History and Mathematics of Codes and Code Breaking

The Sign of Zodiac

I found Elonka Dunin’s website to be greatly interesting. Her small bits of information about the Zodiac Killer on her List of Famous Unsolved Codes and Ciphers specifically caught my eye. Before now, I had of course heard of this serial killer and his or her bold ciphers. However, I had not thought about it in a long time–definitely not since before the start of this course. Her little comments on it, both in her list and her book, The Mammoth Book of Secret Code Puzzles, are just enough to reignite interest in this decades-old mystery. To me, this reveals another area in which cryptanalysis can be put to use–solving not only messages in times of war, as we have discussed in class, but also messages involved in criminal activities. We’ve discussed the uses of cryptography in wartime extensively, but have not taken it quite from the realm of counterintelligence to that of criminal justice.

The uses of cryptography in criminal justice are quite similar to those in counterintelligence. Both involve determining the enemy’s intentions, and possibly his or her motives. In cases of criminal justice, investigators can use cryptanalysis to either analyze intercepted messages or to understand evidence left behind at a crime scene. To me, the case of the Zodiac Killer also sparks my psychological curiosity. This serial killer had to have a reason for sending the encrypted messages to law enforcement. These motives could be power, confidence, pride, or many other things. Successful cryptanalysis of the unsolved messages could reveal these motives, and possibly provide more evidence as to his or her identity.


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1 Comment

  1. Derek

    I’m with you on the psychology angle here. What makes a serial killer (already someone with a disturbed mind) take the extra step to send encrypted messages to the authorities?

    See also this essay on the Zodiac cipher by Neil Sareen, from the 2012 offering of this course.

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