Data protection: lessons from the Mafia

Just couldn't go past this funny story.

Here's a lesson for businesses struggling to meet the demands of data protection under Sarbanes-Oxley. Be careful how you encrypt the stuff that needs extra protection. And it's better not to do it with an Olivetti Lettera 32 typewriter. That's the lesson learned by Bernardo Provenzano, the "boss of bosses" of the Sicilian mafia who was busted by police last week.

Provenzano, otherwise known as Binnu u tratturi (Binnu the tractor) because of his knack for mowing down enemies, was caught because of the clumsy way he encrypted instructions to his lieutenants.

According to this Discovery news report, he used the old Caeser cipher. The code, which was used by the great Roman leader to pass on top secret instructions, moves every letter in the alphabet three characters later (A becomes D and B becomes E, and so on). The so-called Binnu code assigned a number in order to each letter in the Italian alphabet. It then added three to that number in the ciphertext so that "A" became 4, "B" became 5 etc, which meant that every instruction and name was turned into a series of numbers.

Trouble is that the Caeser cipher is well known to code-breakers because it's as old as, well, Caeser. As a result, the police had no trouble breaking the coded instructions to his henchman and family, which included requests for lasagna over Easter.

Any security expert would tell you that the code would have been more secure if the numeric sequences had been varied from time to time, with the help of technology. But Provenzano used an Olivetti Lettera 32 to type out the messages on little scraps of paper.


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