On Pixels, and Puzzles, and Pi

Elonka Dunin was gracious enough to sit down and have a chat with me the other day. It started out as an interview but she turned the tables on me a few times and it ended up being more of a discussion of the ARG and MMORPG genres, cryptography, and puzzle creation.

Elonka Dunin

Welcome, Elonka, and thank you for coming. Why don't we get right into the interview? Could you tell us a little about yourself, your company, and your current cryptography fame?

Hello SpaceBass, thanks for inviting me to the UnFiction IRC! I'll start with a little background about me for your readers. My name's Elonka Dunin. I'm General Manager of Online Community for Simutronics Corporation. We're one of the longest-running companies that provides MMORPGs (Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Games). One of our games, GemStone III, has been running since 1989. To my knowledge, among commercial MMORPGs, that makes it the longest-running game in the world! We started on the GEnie online service, and have also provided games via Prodigy, CompuServe, and America Online. Currently the primary way that our customers get to us though, is via our website, at www.play.net.

Okay, enough of the plug about my games; on to crypto stuff. I got involved with the public cryptography subculture a few years ago, via one of the conventions I speak at — Dragon*Con, in Atlanta. It's a huge convention with thousands of attendees, and has literally hundreds of different sessions and panels on a variety of subjects. I would go to Dragon*Con to speak about online games. But through Dragon*Con, I also met several people in the "hacker" subculture, since they'd be speaking in the same Electronics forums that I was. We'd like wave in the halls and stuff.

Through them, I heard about this code challenge that had gone unsolved for about a year. It was called the "PhreakNIC v3.0 Code". I got curious, and took a look at it one day. Then it totally obsessed me for awhile (a feeling that I'm sure you and your community members can empathize with!).

Oh, definitely.

It took me a week or so (10 days, to be exact), but I cracked it open, and was able to claim the prize (a free trip to a hacker-con). After that, I decided to take a look at some other codes, and I cracked those too. In fact, I cracked so many, that they started barring me from competition…

No way!

For example, when the "@LANta.con puzzle" came out (pronounced "Atlantacon"), there was a line at the bottom of the flyer which said, "Note: Past puzzle crackers are ineligible for prizes associated with solving the @LANta.con puzzle. Give someone else a chance, Elonka."

Anyway, a few months after that, September 11th happened. Like most of the other people in the country, I was enraged, and willing to do just about anything that I could to help with the war on terrorism. So, I called up my local FBI, and asked if I could help out at all, especially since I had all these handy crypto "skillz" that were nice and fresh in my mind.

They said, "No thank you."

So, I called them back the next week…and the week after that…and the week after that…. And eventually, I finally got someone who said, "Okay, well, what do you know about?"

I listed off a bunch of the cryptographic techniques that I was familiar with, and one of them was "steganography"—

Which was a big buzzword at the time already…

—That got their attention, since there were currently rumors going around that Al Qaeda was using steganographic techniques to pass secret messages back and forth. So, they asked me to put together a presentation on what steganography was, and how it might be used.

I did, and presented it at a meeting of the St. Louis FBI Computer Crimes Task Force. It was a gathering of representatives from several different agencies, including the FBI, Secret Service, Postal Inspectors, Customs Agents, Asst. U.S. Attorneys, and so forth. My talk was well-received, and other people who saw it encouraged me to present it at other venues as well.

I gave it at a major hacker convention in Las Vegas called "Def Con", and several other places (including Dragon*Con, of course). I also posted my slides on the web. And Bruce Schneier, a world-famous cryptographer, took a look at them, and kindly provided a link to my site in one of his monthly newsletters (Crypto-Gram). That one link immediately deluged me with literally thousands of visitors over a few days.

He has a lot of readers.

Including yourself. When I saw that unfiction was linking to me, I decided to pop over and take a look at your forums. We met, we chatted, and you asked me to come in for an interview, and here I am!

How was that for an introduction?

That was great! It was rather unexpected to hear from you. How much of the site did you look at?

I just scanned through bits and pieces. You definitely seem to have a large and thriving community!

Well as I keep telling people, 95% of the community is lurkers. That holds between games as well as during. A lot of people like to play along and follow the boards, without actively participating. But sometimes they'll chime in out of the blue with a solution that's been plaguing the group for awhile.

Yes, we have similar statistics on our boards. We find that only about half of our players visit the forums at all, and of those in the forums, less than 10% post on a regular basis.

Hmm, that's interesting. I suppose it's probably a similar situation with any community. The chatting community is an even smaller subsection of the overall, as well.

Had you had any prior experience with code-cracking and cryptography before that first PhreakNIC code?

Well, not on that scale, but yes. My mother tells me that I was fascinated by puzzles, going all the way back to when I was a toddler. I also remember when I was a kid, that I saw a neighborhood boy who had a book on codes (I think it was for a boy scout merit badge), and I asked if I could read it (he ended up giving it to me). Plus I was a voracious reader in the local library, checking out the maximum number of books on each visit — I especially loved puzzle-solving stories such as "Danny Dunn" or "Encyclopedia Brown".

Most of my code-solving skills were pretty simple though—substitution ciphers and grids. I didn't start learning about the more elaborate systems such as Vigenere, PGP, UUencoding, and steganography, until I started digging into the PhreakNIC v3.0 Code. I had to come up to speed fast! But then again, that gave me an edge, since everything was very fresh in my mind. I think another thing that gave me an edge, was that I came from a "pencil and paper" background. I didn't want to (and still don't want to) use computer utilities to crack codes. I'm far happier figuring it out myself, or doing it in my head.


When I'd get stuck on something, I'd go and pull out the Scrabble set and dump the tiles on the table, and then move things around, looking to see if any new pattern might inspire me. I'll also talk to everyone I can about a place I'm stuck. Not just to college-level cryptologists, but I'll talk to kids, and even toddlers.

Wow, that's a unique tactic.

Because if everyone else in the "grownup" field is stuck, maybe that kid will come up with an idea that nobody else thought of!

One day when I went to a 2600 meeting (a hacker organization), there was a guy at the meeting who had a shirt printed with hundreds of binary digits. I asked him if it said anything, or if it was just random. He said that it had a message. I told him not to tell me what it was, and then I pulled out pen and paper, and worked it out by hand. No computer…just me and my memory.

Good lord.

They were all pretty dazzled.

Gee, I wonder why.

Have you had a chance to look at the PhreakNIC v3.0 Code Tutorial that I wrote yet?

Some, but I haven't read it all.

I tried to write it in a very entertaining "tongue in cheek" fashion, with a lot of humorous references to cyberculture. I hope you enjoy it.

It's an excellent resource for our community, actually. More than one person has remarked to me that your description of the PhreakNIC code is almost exactly like playing through a portion of an Alternate Reality Game. The nested puzzles are pretty common…the only difference is that in an ARG, you generally win some advancement of the story after solving a puzzle. Or you gain access to someplace or someone that you couldn't reach before.

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