Have you ever dreamed about being a successful crime solver? Have you ever envied this old M. Holmes- or dreamed about cracking mysteries like in Criminal Minds?
Well fiction is not so far from reality as police investigators sometimes feel like they are getting nowhere and could make use of some help. As has been shown lately, the input of thousands of individuals could be as good as the one of experts, the so-called Wisdom of the Crowd. But how is this relevant to police investigations? Well, like the FBI did in 2011, investigators can sometimes seek help by crowdsourcing some of their unsolved cases.
On 30th June 1999, the 41-year-old Ricky McCormick was found dead in St Louis, Missouri. While the nature of the death was undoubtedly from criminal activity, two strange coded notes found in his pockets quickly caught the attention of the policemen. Twelve years later, despite the relentless work of the CRRU- the Cryptanalysis and Racketeering Records Unit of the FBI- those notes remain a mystery, forcing the FBI to crowdsource the problem on the internet. The collection of solutions presented by the population will be reviewed by the FBI, following a hierarchical system. No reward despite the self-satisfaction and the glory of helping the FBI is offered.
Two years later, the FBI again resorted to crowdsourcing to identify the authors of the horrifying bombing in the Marathon of Boston. An unprecedented number of calls, pictures and help from the population ensued from this open call, leading to a quick arrest of the two terrorists. Following the same lines, numerous cities have developed apps allowing their citizen to report crimes from street disturbance to murders.
However, one can wonder is this utilization of crowdsourcing in crime scenes is eventually a good idea. Indeed, in the last couple of years, a new phenomenon, called crimesourcing, has surfaced. Following the example of their opponents, crime organizations were quick to adopt the system. One dramatic example is the increasing frequency of crimes perpetuated during flash-mobs – or flash robs like the investigators call them. As far as the apps are concerned, one might fear that citizens, now able to anonymously rat on their neighbours might use the app for the wrong purposes.
Apart from crime scenes, crowdsourcing has been used for decades to help scientists to crack old codes. Most of them offer money as a reward, in addition to the glory of being “the one that found out”. If you have (a lot of) hours to loose and want to try to test your cryptographic skills here are some examples. First, the statue in front of the C.I.A. building, named KRYPTOS, meaning “hidden” in ancient Greek, has been holding some of its secrets since its construction in 1990. The coded message is said to give information on what would be buried beneath the headquarters of the C.I.A. Only two men on earth know the key to the code: the artist who made mysterious piece of art and the former president of the C.I.A. Despite the hard work of cryptographs from the C.I.A, the N.A.S.A and from the crowd, the last panel is still resisting. Here is a link if the Benjamin Gates in you suddenly stirs:
Once you are done with this easy code, maybe take a look at the XVth century dated Voynich Manuscript, which remains a complete mystery. None of its text content has been cracked, and the figures including mixes of humans and plants are both unsettling and disturbingly intriguing.
Last, if you feel that those old manuscripts or those expert-made codes at the C.I.A are a little bit too difficult, you could also try to solve the mystery of the 17 coded letters found in several Weldon University books in the past two years. Each letter contains an object of a certain colour which is used as part of the code.
As one of the purposes of a secret code is to be cracked, all these mysteries can hope to be solved at some point in the future, thanks to the Wisdom of the Crowd.
- de Castella, T. (July 5, 2010) Should we trust the wisdom of crowd ? BBC News.
- FBI. (March 29, 2011). Cryptanalysts Part 2: Help Solve an Open Murder Case. FBI.
- Gevertz, J. (March 26, 2014). Secret code found in Weldon university library books, Canada. Reward offered for anyone who can solve mystery. The Independent.
- Goodman,M. (Sept 29, 2011). From crowdsourcing to crime-sourcing: The rise of distributed criminality. Radar.
- Monroy-Fernandez, A. (July 21, 2012). The problem with crowdsourcing crime reporting.
- Schwarte, J. (Nov 20, 2010). Clues to Stubborn Secret in C.I.A.’s Backyard. The New York Times.
- Worall, S. (April 7, 2014). The riddle of the Voynich Manuscript. BBC News.