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Cryptographic Crimes

The Use of Cryptography in Real and Fictional Crimes


Marcel Danesi

This book examines the use of cryptography in both real and fictional crimes—a topic that is rarely broached. It discusses famous crimes, such as that of the Zodiac Killer, that revolve around cryptic messages and current uses of encryption that make solving cases harder and harder. It then draws parallels with the use of cryptography and secret writing in crime fiction, starting with Edgar Allan Poe and Arthur Conan Doyle, claiming that there is an implicit principle in all such writing—namely, that if the cryptogram is deciphered then the crime itself reveals its structure. The general conclusion drawn is that solving crimes is akin to solving cryptograms, as the crime fiction writers suggested. Cases of cryptographic crime, from unsolved cold cases to the Mafia crimes, are discussed and mapped against this basic theoretical assumption. The book concludes by suggesting that by studying cryptographic crimes the key to understanding crime may be revealed.
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5. Secret Communications in Organized Crime


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Chapter Five


Secret Communications in Organized Crime

Don’t let your tongue be your worst enemy.

John “Sonny” Franzese (b. 1917)


In 2006, Italian police found a cryptogram among the notes of a Sicilian Mafia boss, Bernardo Provenzano. It was easily decoded, leading to his arrest after years on the run. It also led investigators to track down other members of the clan.1 Provenzano had used a modified Caesar- Polybius cipher to conceal information, simply assigning a number in order to each letter, adding three more to it in the ciphertext: that is, he replaced “A” with “4,” “B” with “5,” and so on. The investigators took little time to crack the simple code. The decrypted text contained orders to his lieutenants and the names of gang members.

In jail, Provenzano kept asking for his copy of the Bible; so, the police came to suspect that he may have used it to create another secret cipher, because excerpts from the Bible were also found on other notes possessed by Provenzano. Forensic cryptographers believed that ← 97 | 98 → specific words in the Bible were assigned certain numbers and then used as part of encrypted communiqués, but were not able to figure out the key or keys used. One note referred to Revelation 17, chapters eight and nine: “The beast that thou sawest was, and is not; and shall ascend out of the bottomless...

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