Decoding the Pizzini

From the pages of the International Herald Tribune comes a glimpse of a world where clandestine communication retains the old and tested methods of hand to hand. When a godfather becomes expendable  is a piece by Andrea Camilleri, the author of “The Smell of the Night” and other novels in the Inspector Montalbano series. In it he describes the way that captured Mafia boss communicated with his subordinates while on the run:

The authorities said that Provenzano would transmit his orders – regarding such matters as who should be rewarded with government contracts, whom one should vote for in local and national elections, how one should act on specific occasions – by means of pizzini, little scraps of paper folded several times over, which his trusty couriers (mostly peasants with spotless records) would pass from hand to hand along lengthy and seemingly random routes.

These were necessary precautions to reduce, as much as possible, the risk of interception. One pizzino, for example, took more than 48 hours to travel the mile between the boss’s cottage and Corleone. Others could take weeks to reach a nearby destination. The telephone was out of the question.

Amazing that such methods are still in use today — and a sober reminder of several things.

  • Not much the Internet, or police forces, or intelligence agencies, can do to monitor this kind of thing unless they get off their heinies;
  • Is it just the Mafia using this kind of thing? Or are other underground organisations doing it? The organisation I know a little about — Jemaah Islamiyah, the al Qaeda-linked Indonesian terrorist group — use a combination, and while their technical skills have grown quickly, far more quickly than the people monitoring them, they still retain networks that don’t use any form of modern communication;
  • This ageless form of communication may yet be around for a lot longer than our beloved Internet.

Anyway, I find this whole ‘pizzini’ thing fascinating. It has more to do with The Da Vinci Code than with Mafia-watching, but technology could offer some clues to deciphering them. Some 350 of these encoded messages exist, apparently, mostly in the form of numbers. Other messages were left in a bible, with certain passages underlined.

Some notes, according to The Guardian, have been deciphered, illustrating recruitment problems and that Bernardo Provenzano was addressed as “vossia”, the deeply respectful and indeed archaic, form of “you”. What it doesn’t say is how they were decoded, and whether that breaks the code for the others.

If it doesn’t I call on the Italian police to release them to on the Internet and let us have a crack at them. I’ll never manage it, being useless at this kind of thing, but now everyone does Sudoku puzzles in the bath, I suspect your average commuter will make short work of decoding them.

 

22. April 2006 by jeremy
Categories: Privacy, Security | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 comment

One Comment

  1. That is very interesting notion – with all the focus being on the internet, using old-fashioned methods of clandestine communication may indeed come back into fashion.