The fifth episode of HISTORY’s Zodiac Killer documentary revealed an alleged solution of the infamous Z340 cryptogram. Does it make sense?
The fifth and last episode of HISTORY’s documentary The Hunt For The Zodiac Killer has aired (check here for a video). Titled “The Code Is Cracked” this last part of the series promised to reveal the solution of one of the world’s most famous crypto mysteries: the Zodiac Killer’s second encrypted message, also known as Z340.
The solution (?)
It was Craig Bauer, crypto history expert, book author, and member of the expert team shown in the series, who presented the alleged solution. The first part of it is a decryption of the first eight lines of Z340. Here it is:
The cleartext reads as follows:
The second part is found a little further down:
Craig Bauer is a friend of mine. He has dedicated his latest book Uncovered to me. It goes without saying that I don’t begrudge him this success. But is his solution correct?
1) There are too many variables in the solution, it seems too subjective, both in method of “decipherment” and results given.
2) It leaves out some cipher characters, and adds plain text characters, without explanation other than making the plaintext a bit closer to meaningful.
3) Much of the plaintext has little meaning anyway, after this is done.
4) The given substitutions don’t work with characters in lines after line 8. But rather than being because the rest is gibberish, I think it may be because the substitutions are incorrect.
5) The last “O” and “N” in “NICKSON” replace the Zodiac symbol and “Z” in “[symbol] ZODAIK”. But it seems “ZODAIK” is one thing probably intended by the killer.
Other blog readers, including George Lasry, Bill Briere, and Nils Kopal have stated serious doubts about this solution, too. George Lasry published a very good analysis in the discussion forum of my last article (comments #19-21), which makes clear that Craig’s cleartext is far from conclusive.
Ed Scheidt’s contribution
Of course, Craig showed his solution to his fellow members of the documentary’s crypto team (including Kevin Knight and Dave Oranchak). Surprisingly, all of them confirmed that his finding made sense.
In some of my articles about this documentary I mentioned that at the NSA Symposium on Cryptologic History a well-known crypto expert mentioned Craig Bauer’s solution and said that in his view it was correct. This crypto expert was Ed Scheidt, a retired chairman of the CIA crypto unit, best known for having designed the cryptographic systems used in the famous Kryptos sculpture at CIA Headquarters in Langley, Virginia.
Ed didn’t take part in the symposium itlself, but he was present at the Kryptos dinner organised by Elonka Dunin on the day after. The following picture was taken at this dinner:
What I didn’t know is that Ed Scheidt had an appreance in the last episode of the documentary. Craig Bauer showed him his solution, he confirmed that it made sense.
So, in the end, we have four renowned codebreaking experts and a few more intelligent people who all have stated that an obviously wrong solution of a famous crypto mystery is correct. How shall we make sense of this?
Here’s my answer. In my view, HISTORY’s Zodiac Killer documentary should be regarded as semi-fictional. It tells the story of a fictional investigation of a real crime. The members of the investigation team (including crypto experts Craig Bauer, Kevin Knight, David Oranchak, and Ed Scheidt) served as actors. The things they found out are real, but far from new. Their super computer Carmel is a fictionalized version of some analysis software.
The alleged solution that was presented in the documentary should be regarded as fictional, too. I’m pretty sure that Craig, Kevin, David and Ed know well that this solution doesn’t make much sense. As far as I know, none of them has published a detailed explanation of it so far. I don’t expect that a peer-reviewed magazine or conference will ever accept such an explanation.
All in all, I think that The Hunt For The Zodiac Killer was a great show – nothing more and nothing less. I’m pleased to see that this series has drawn a lot of attention on the Zodiac Killer case and on codebreaking in general. Craig, Kevin, David and Ed have become TV stars for a few weeks – they certainly have deserved it because of their great work over the last few years. The blog posts I wrote about this documentary received thousands of page hits within hours – I hope some of the new readers will stay. I can imagine that someday a successful cryptologist will say: “My interest in cryptology started when I saw this Zodiac Killer thing on the History Channel.”