Between 1978 and 1995 Ted Kaczynski (aka the Unabomber) terrorized America with his homemade pipe bombs, killing 3 people, and injuring 23. One of the lesser-known facts of the case is that the search warrant that brought him down was completely based on a method that, until then, had not been officially invented: forensic linguistics. A recent scripted drama series available on Netflix entitled “Manhunt: Unabomber” is a well-executed illustration of how a manhunt like this can unravel. For almost twenty years nothing the FBI had tried had been effective in finding the Unabomer. That is, until new recruit, James R. Fitzgerald, took a look at the case with new eyes. Even he was coming up with goose eggs until someone mocked his pronunciation of the word “water”. I found this particularly cool because, like Special Agent Fitzgerald, I spent my entire life thinking the proper way to say water is “wudder”. This was his lightbulb moment. At this point, no one had implemented forensic linguistics in cases like these.
At a point in the series, Fitzgerald states, “When I say wudder, you learn everything about me. One tiny word, one tiny mistake, and you can tell I’m from Philly, blue-collar, local school, fan of [Flyers legend] Dave Schultz.” Without spoiling the entire story, Fitzgerald and his team found the Unabomber’s “wudder” through the practice of forensic linguistics. In other words, they found specific words and phrases that were unique enough to hone the search to only a few individuals. This, of course struck me immediately. I am not only from a blue collar family in the Philadelphia area, but I am also a detective that has been using these same linguistic techniques since they were first publicized in the nineties.
What I have found, over and over, is that all individuals utilize some words used in small sects of society. Criminals are not different. These sects can be regional, like the spoken term “coke” substituted for the generic word “soda” limited mainly to Texans. They can also be something like the typed letters “ICE” (short for “I can’t even”) which means a millennial is losing patience. No matter what the word, it is evidence. As I have been saying for almost twenty years, “A good detective has no idea what he is looking for.” That is, until he sees or hears it.
Every. Word. Matters. Whether it is spoken, texted or written. I am not saying that any one idiosyncrasy will make your entire case. What I am saying, however, is that every word is a clue and you must comb through everything and dismiss nothing. In our more than twenty thousand cases, we have many dozens, if not hundreds of examples of cases that were made by first studying the subject’s linguistics. Hackers are no exception. In fact, hackers are the worst. Ego, status and culture are more important to most hackers than anything else. I don’t care how smart a person is (or how smart they think they are), unless they know how to lose themselves and become someone completely different, they will identify themselves through their linguistic patterns.
When we located one of the world’s most notorious hackers last year, we used many factors to triangulate his identity, and forensic linguistics was one of them.
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