The week of May 22, 2016

Secret messages

By Jesse Hicks

This week in the Kernel, we’re looking at the mysteries of codes and ciphers—the messages that are often tantalizingly close, yet just out of reach.

First, Rick Paulas looks at the community of online sleuths trying to crack the final cipher of the Zodiac killer. Almost four decades ago, the Zodiac terrorized the San Francisco Bay Area, forcing the local newspapers to publish encrypted messages that he claimed would reveal his identity. The first was easily solved but didn’t lead to any arrests. The second, though, provided uncrackable—even today it remains undeciphered. For some, the prospect of unraveling the Zodiac’s final mystery—and possibly revealing his identity—has become an obsession.

Robert Griffin looks at a similar obsession: the mystery of r/A858. The subreddit began posting what seemed like random strings of letters and numbers. Redditors soon recognized a code, but couldn’t discern its purpose. As some messages were decoded, they revealed little. Only later did the creators step forward to take credit for the puzzle, but even then they would not explain their project. Intrigued code-breakers were left to their own devices, and their own speculation. Finally, the subreddit went private, with a notice that the A858 project had come to an end. But had it really?

And finally, Nathan Smith takes us back to 1995, when Ted Kaczynski stood accused of being the Unabomber, whose campaign of mail bombing had stymied the FBI for nearly two decades. Much like the Zodiac killer, the Unabomber had demanded publication of his anti-technology manifesto; after some deliberation and consultation with authorities, the New York Times and The Washington Post agreed. One hope was that putting the manuscript before the public would foster more leads. It did, and Kaczynski was arrested. But as Smith details, proving that Kaczynski was the same man who’d written the manifesto was the type of challenge the FBI had never faced, and for help they turned to an unusual source.

Enjoy the issue.

Photo via Christiaan Colen / Flickr (CC by 2.0) | Remix via Max Fleishman