Using Code Words

Using code words in a normal-looking message is a cheap and effective way to communicate. 


Several American businessmen are in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, trying to get a contract signed for a lucrative mining deal Malaysian government. Mike, the head negotiator, communicates with his iPhone over a 4G GSM network, and he uses his corporate e-mail account via his laptop.

Before he left home he came up with a series of code words to use when he communicates with his boss. This simple and cheap method will defeat and mislead national-level eavesdropping, hackers, competitors who eavesdrop, and anyone else who wants to spy on him. He just needs to keep his special word list safe. Beware of thinking that old school is somehow wrong, or that it offers flimsy security. The opposite is true. Flying under the radar is a very good idea these days, and simple is good.  He printed his little code word table on a piece of paper and he hid that paper inside his wallet.

Here is the code word list for the above scenario:

SPECIAL WORD(s)                                           MEANING

NORTH                                          THE BUSINESS DEAL DID NOT GO THROUGH

SOUTH                                          THE BUSINESS DEAL DID GO THROUGH

EAST                                             THINGS LOOK PROMISING BUT NOT YET COMPLETE

WEST                                             HUGE SUCCESS

NORTHEAST                                 UTTER FAILURE

NORTHWEST                                 WE NEED MORE TIME

NICE PLACE                                   WE ARE BEING WATCHED


CHINESE                                        THEY SIGNED THE CONTRACT SECRETLY WITH US

JAPANESE                                      THEY REFUSED TO SIGN THE CONTRACT

INDIAN                                            THEY SIGNED THE CONTRACT WITH US OPENLY

THAI                                                THEY ARE NOT CORRUPT

KOREAN                                           THEY ARE CORRUPT



One can then write a misleading message containing special words with special meanings.   So here is the letter Mike writes:


I am very sorry to say that the deal did not go through. We are extremely disappointed by the behavior of their people. Tonight we are going to take a break after all these days of hard work. We are going to that Chinese restaurant west of here that you said is a nice place. Call you tomorrow.


The character in this story came up with traffic that sounded reasonable given the context. In the scenario above, one would expect that a Chinese, Thai, Japanese, or Indian restaurant really does exist somewhere west of the speaker’s location. He told everyone else involved in the business transaction to stay mum over the deal, and emphasized to them to be especially careful over the phone or on the internet. Best practice would be to assure that as few people know about it as possible. Only those who need to know should be told about it.

The message and code word table above is for a specific purpose.  A longer table can be the basis for extended conversations on varying subjects.  Keeping the code word table secret is a priority.  One can write it down, one can print it at home on a small piece of paper, or one could encrypt it with a strong PGP key and use it on a netbook that is never attached to the internet.

The point of all this is that simple human means can defeat elaborate technological threats.  It does not take high technology to defeat the masters of high technology.  It simply takes a little thoughtful effort. If Big Brother ever comes, old-school tools like this might be useful.

(Dietrich, 2014)


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