August 9, 2005 in City

Duncan encrypted data on computer

Dave Forster Fargo (N.D.) Forum
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Three days before police say he murdered an Idaho family, Joseph Duncan bragged online about an encrypted, tell-all journal that wouldn’t be broken into for decades.

He figured technology would catch up in 30 years, “and then the world will know who I really was, and what I really did, and what I really thought,” he wrote May 13.

Evidence seized at Duncan’s home last year for another case suggests he may have been keeping such a journal. At least one compact disc and a portion of his hard drive were encrypted well enough that one of the region’s top computer forensic specialists couldn’t access it.

Detective Jess Schoon, a Fergus Falls, Minn., officer and one of about eight specialists for the Minnesota Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force, looked at the equipment for evidence in a child molestation case out of Detroit Lakes, Minn.

“Without a doubt the most challenging system I’ve looked at,” Schoon said of Duncan’s encryption.

Most of the seized discs and computer files were accessible and didn’t reveal anything significant, he said. But the detective’s best effort couldn’t get at the hidden data. “Nobody that I know of has the ability to crack that encryption,” Schoon said.

Commander Rick Anderson, who leads the Internet crimes task force in St. Paul, said his detectives occasionally run into encrypted material they just can’t break. He said Schoon is one of his best-trained detectives. With 128-bit encryption, which Schoon said Duncan used, all the computing power in the state would take years to break it, Anderson said.

“It’s basically not breakable,” he said. The FBI, which continues to investigate Duncan, 42, in connection with the Idaho murders, now has the encrypted data, Schoon said.

Special Agent Brent Robbins, whose Salt Lake City office is leading the case, said this week he couldn’t comment on the material. Another spokesman in Washington said the agency wouldn’t discuss the FBI’s decryption abilities, citing national security and crime concerns.

Police seized Duncan’s computer equipment from his Fargo apartment last August. They were looking for evidence in a Detroit Lakes case. A 6-year-old boy had identified Duncan, a registered high-risk sex offender, in a photo lineup as the man who pulled down his pants on a playground. The child and his 8-year-old companion told police the man approached them carrying a video camera.

A Becker County prosecutor later charged Duncan, who posted a $15,000 check for bail in April. He went missing within weeks. By then, Schoon had long since handed back Duncan’s computer equipment.

While basic encryption isn’t necessarily difficult to apply, Schoon said Duncan appeared to be “very, very highly skilled” on the computer. It was a talent he honed in prison, where he was sentenced in 1980 to 20 years for raping a 14-year-old boy.

In 1987, prison psychologist S.C. Sloat wrote that Duncan “has gained respect here for how well he has mastered computers.”

Duncan continued the craft after moving to Fargo following his release. He took computer science classes at North Dakota State University and worked for a computer consulting firm in Moorhead.

He now faces murder charges in the May 16 killings of Brenda Groene, 40; her son Slade, 13; and her boyfriend, Mark McKenzie, 37. Federal prosecutors are also expected to charge him with kidnapping the family’s 8-year-old girl, Shasta, and kidnapping and killing her 9-year-old brother, Dylan.

This week, a sheriff in California said Duncan is also the suspect in the 1997 kidnapping and murder of 10-year-old Anthony Martinez.

A partial thumb print from the crime scene matches Duncan’s, authorities said.

After learning of the Idaho case and Duncan’s mention of an encrypted journal, Schoon said he hoped federal investigators can get to whatever information Duncan had hidden with his computer.

“It’s very frustrating,” Schoon said.

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