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Tell It to the Wind

If you can’t say something nice, say it in Navajo.

Seeking a foolproof method to keep vital data safe and secure, an increasing number of American companies are using Navajo “Windtalkers” to transmit sensitive information. Windtalkers, the subject of a 2002 John Woo film starring Nicholas Cage, were Navajo Marines who transmitted data about Japanese military movements during the World War II. Because Navajo is an unwritten language known to few non-Navajos, the use of the idiom ultimately proved devastating to the Japanese war effort. The Empire of the Rising Sun could not crack the American code, because there was no code. The code was in fact a language.

Windtalkers have again come to the fore. Every day, new revelations emerge regarding the ludicrously vulnerable condition of computers. Network defenses are breached, personal information is inadvertently leaked to third parties because of flaws in firewalls or glitches in programs. Malware and spyware, often planted in computers by Eastern European gangsters, routinely intercept personal data, leading to billions of dollars in credit-card theft. By planting undetected programs in computers through seemingly harmless e-mail attachments, thieves capture every key stroke entered into a PC, including passwords, security codes and social security numbers. Thieves also use hidden cameras concealed in pens, key chains, teddy bears, ties and even sandwiches to pilfer valuable data. The only foolproof way to keep private data out of the hands of thieves is to communicate in a language thieves cannot understand. That language is Navajo.

“We use Windtalkers for all of our internal corporate communications,” says Lesley Simonson, chairman of Articulate Graphics, a Palo Alto computer design firm. “Either we put our Navajo employees on the phone for a chat, or we have them read scripts translated into Navajo on a teleconferences. Nothing sensitive ever leaves this building unless it’s in Navajo.”

Garrison Overbrook, a surveillance expert in Chicago, says that Windtalkers are quietly having a pronounced effect on the world of computer security. “The Russians, the North Koreans, even the old-line Mafia are tearing their hair out,” he says. “Even knowing that companies are using Navajo doesn’t help them, because there is not a single high-tech criminal in the entire world who can speak or understand Navajo. And that’s not likely to change any time soon.”

Søren Dierkits, a Swedish linguistics specialist, explains why. “Navajo is a difficult language to master,” he says. “It takes work. Bear in mind that criminals are lazy, which is why they become criminals in the first place. Thugs join crime rings so they can steal, rob, bust kneecaps and kill people, not to learn Navajo.”

The real beauty of using Windtalkers is that criminals are unlikely ever to get a Windtalker to come and work for them. “If word got out that some Navajo had gone over to the dark side, we’d know about it in a hurry,” says Overbrook. “So the crooks are kind of stuck.”

The Windtalkers have been so successful that other impenetrable native American languages, such as Choctaw, are now being used as well. And in Europe, languages such as Basque and Occitan and Cornish and Gaelic have been tapped to foil computer hackers and Russian gangsters.

“Some criminals are so demoralized that they’ve left the computer espionage field and gone back to breaking legs,” says Overbrook. “As one guy put it to me: ‘If organized crime has reached the point where you have to speak Choctaw to compete, I’d rather work for 7-Eleven.’ That says it all.”

About Joe Queenan

Joe Queenan is a regular contributor on business issues, corporate culture, and financial follies to Barron's and The Wall Street Journal.