Here are ten criminals who used encryption – including the notorious Unabomber.

Within the last 20 hours an article about the ciphers of the Unabomber (i.e., Ted Kaczynski) I published a year ago received several thousand page hits – mainly from the USA. I don’t know the exact reason for this (maybe a reader can tell me). Probably, there was something about the Unabomber on TV. Anyway, I hereby welcome all new readers who have found this blog after googling for the Unabomber.

One question you might ask yourself is whether there are other criminals who used encyption, as well. The answer is yes. Here are the world’s most notable murderers, robbers and con men who wrote messages in code (starting with the Unabomber).


The Unabomber


Ted Kaczynski, also known as the “Unabomber”, was a gifted mathematician. Trained at Harvard and Berkeley, he renounced a promising scientific career and moved to a cabin in Montana, in 1971. Between 1978 and 1995, he engaged in a nationwide bombing campaign against people involved with modern technology, mailing or planting bombs, ultimately killing a total of three people and injuring 23 others.

Before Kaczynski’s identity was known, the FBI titled the perpetrator “UNABOM” (UNiversity & Airline BOMber), since his bombs often targeted universities and airlines. The press thereupon simply called him “Unabomber”. The search for this criminal was the most expensive manhunt in US history.

Kaczynski finally was caught after he had sent a lengthy treatise (“Unabomber Manifesto”) to The Washington Post and The New York Times. The two newspapers published the manifesto, which led to his sister-in-law and his brother recognizing his writing style and opinions. Kaczynski was arrested in 1996 and sentenced to life in prison with no possibility of parole.

When FBI agents searched Kaczynski’s cabin after his arrest, they seized tens of thousands of hand-written pages. Among these journals were several that were encrypted using cipher systems of Kaczynski’s own design. For details check my article about the ciphers of the Unabomber.


The Zodiac Killer


The Zodiac Killer was a serial killer who operated in Northern California in the late 1960s and early 1970s. He killed at least five people and seriuosly injured two. The Zodiac killer sent four encrypted messages to local newspapers, three of which have never been deciphered. His identity remains unknown. For more information check the website of Zodiac Killer cipher expert Dave Oranchak.

Of the three unsolved Zodiac Killer cryptograms two are quite short (13 and 33 characters). The remaining one consists of 340 characters. Solving this crypto mystery it might help to solve one of the most famous cold cases in US criminal history.



The Masked Man


From 1992 German police sought a man, who sexually assaulted dozens of children. The press called him the “Masked Man” after the mask he wore according to testimonies. The picture above shows an identikit. In addition to almost 40 other sexual offences, the Masked Man was suspected to have committed five child murders. Police authorities in Germany, the Netherlands, and France worked together to solve the case. For years they had no success. The case received a great deal of media attention in Europe.

In 2011 a tip from a sexual assault victim finally led police to a man named Martin Ney from Hamburg. When interrogated, Ney confessed to the three murders and about 40 incidents of sexual assault against children. Ney was condemned to life in prison.

As police found out, a computer hard drive and a few additional storage devices Ney owned were encrypted. Of course, police was interested in deciphering these data. They might have revealed whether Ney was guilty of other crimes. However, Ney refused to reveal his passwords. For years, experts at the Lower Saxony Police Department operated a password guessing software, which tested thousands of password candidates per seconds, but to no avail.

Last year, finally, Martin Ney revealed his encryption passwords. However, according to a police spokesman, nothing was found on the storage devices that proves that Ney committed further crimes.


Victor Lustig


Victor Lustig was a con artist who undertook scams in various countries and became known as “the man who sold the Eiffel Tower.” According to the book The Man who Broke Purple, Victor Lustig used an encryption code that was finally broken by one of the greatest codebreakers in history, William Friedman. I wish I knew more about this story, which involves a criminal genius and a codebreaking genius. However, there is no information available about it in the literature I know. If a reader can help, I would be very interested.


The Erba murder couple


On an evening in December 2006 Olindo Romano from Erba, Italy, and his wife Rosa Bazzi got annoyed by noise that came from their neighbours. As a reaction, they killed four of them.

After his arrest, Olindo wrote encrypted messages onto sheets he hid in a bible and a book about pope Benedict XVI. He somehow managed to send these books to his wife, who was imprisoned in another jail. The content of the messages was ominous: “Revenge has a long memory”, a list of names of prosecution witnesses under the heading “Book of the Dead”, love messages for his wife, and similar material. However, prison staff discovered Romano’s hidden messages, and police could decipher them. The content was used against the couple on court. The two were condemned to life in prison.

Allegedly, the code Orlindo used was a pigpen-like monoalphabetic substitution code (MASC) with nulls. Police had no trouble breaking it. In 2013 there were press reports about another encrypted message Orlindo Romano hid in a bible. For more information check my recent article about the Erba murder case.

Further reading: The Top 50 unsolved encrypted messages: 39. The Riverbanks Ripper cryptogram


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