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Cracking the bad guys' codes


Published July 7, 2014

An FBI forensic examiner recently provided a UB Law School audience with a fascinating look at a little-known arm of the agency — the Cryptanalysis and Racketeering Records Unit, which deciphers coded messages sent by prisoners, criminals and terrorists.

Deneen L. Hernandez came to Buffalo at the invitation of the FBI and the FBI Citizens Academy and its alumni association (FBICAAA), which brings civic, business and religious leaders together to learn how the bureau works.

More than 100 people attended the presentation, which was held May 7 in O’Brian Hall, North Campus.

Hernandez, a Western New York native who started in law enforcement as a Seneca Nation tribal police officer, has been an FBI codebreaker since 1990, working out of the agency’s offices in Quantico, Va. She described some of the cases her unit has tackled, from the routine to the seemingly impossibly complex. Some of her files on individual cases, she said, are 6,000-pages long. Their work supports intelligence-gathering and criminal investigations.

As an example, she showed a coded letter written by Florida murderer Joseph P. Smith, who killed 11-year-old Carly Brucia in 2004 in Sarasota. It was a cipher that used two characters to represent one letter of the alphabet. Decoded, the prison letter — from Smith to his brother — revealed where he had disposed of critical evidence in the case. The cryptanalysis unit, Hernandez said, broke the code in just two hours.

She laid out for the audience, which included a dozen young people from the Boys and Girls Club of Buffalo, how her unit’s codebreakers approach a variety of challenges.

Ciphers replace or rearrange individual characters to encrypt information. MEET ME AT THE PARK AT NOON, for example, might become NFFU NF BU UIF QBSL BU OPPO.

A concealment hides information within seemingly innocent text or pictures. A message like SILENCE TRAITOR NOW can be hidden in a paragraph in which the first letter of every word, or every fifth word of the passage, spells out the message. Another example was a message concealed in symbols on the borders of a prisoner’s drawing of a young woman.

A code replaces words or phrases with alternatives in order to encrypt the meaning. A criminal wanting to communicate “Ralph will deliver the heroin to Mack at the pier” might write “Our friend from New York will deliver the stuff to our associate at the place we discussed” (a veiled-meaning code) or “Sunny will deliver the bananas to Squeaky at the cemetery” (a double-meaning code). As another example, Hernandez said, Sept. 11 hijacker Mohamed Atta spoke these words to a confederate: “two sticks, a dash and a cake with a stick down” — written out, it becomes 11-9, or, read right to left as Arabic is, 9-11.

Finally, symbols, seen in tattoos and on paper, are a challenge to which Hernandez’s unit is giving increasing attention. Interpreting them means acquiring a broad knowledge of the mythology of different world cultures, such as Thor’s hammer, an ancient Norse symbol now used by neo-pagans and Wiccans.

Hernandez showed how, by analyzing how frequently certain characters and words occur, codebreakers can discern some common words, “that,” “the,” “and,” “will,” “a,” “I,” “is,” “it” and “in” being the most common in English.

But, she said, for all their success, some codes resist every attempt at discovery. One is a cipher produced by Zodiac, a serial killer who claimed to have murdered 47 people in northern California in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The criminal remains uncaught, and of the four cryptograms he sent to newspapers, only one has been solved.