When I was a kid, I remember learning two encryption techniques from my grandmother. The first was the substitution cipher / Caesar cipher / Secret decoder ring method. These cryptograms are found in newspapers everywhere and they give at least a taste of how current encryption works – despite being reasonably simple to crack given a long enough message.
Ralphie: [after cracking a secret code, reading it] Be sure to…drink your… Ovaltine. Ovaltine?! A crummy commercial?! Son of a bitch!
I was fascinated by Morse code, but never really took the time to learn it. It is fascinating because it is a simple code that can be used in a variety of ways (e.g. with lights over long distances, knocks through a bedroom wall, or as signals over wire.) Cemophore serves much the same function as Morse code, and has the advantage of not needing lights or other electrical equipment, but the disadvantage of only working well during the day and over a limited distance. Both of these systems are meant to assist in communication rather than to conceal it as the code is available to all and does not vary from the agreed upon representations.
In addition to ciphers, I discovered that logic could be used to crack codes if you had certain feedback from your various attempts at guessing. Mastermind, the code breaking game, got me hooked on this sort of a logic puzzle – although it was not always easy to find anyone to play with. It’s so much easier today, as these sorts of games are available as apps where a program serves as the code-master.
Watching the encryption videos on Khan Academy has elevated my awareness of the science of encryption from these simple cryptograms and code breaking games. Thy provide a history of encryption as well as lessons on how various encryption algorithms are used to solve older codes and how more modern cryptography creates ‘perfect encryption’
An introductory video does a good job of explaining the problems that cryptographers face:
– How to generate a mode of encryption without the two conspirators ever meeting face to face?
– How to maintain encryption over time (i.e. changing the basis of the encryption) before eavesdroppers could crack it?
– What are the ‘human elements’ that weaken security?
What is cryptography?: What is Cryptography? A story which takes us from Caesar to Claude Shannon.
Like anything, one problem I have when watching these videos is that they make sense and seem easy to follow when watching them, but might be harder to actually enact. Khan academy does a good job creating problem sets, but these don’t include actual code-making and code-breaking. To do that, I thought I’d use this space instead.
I previously posted a simple Caesar Cipher with a quotation by Richard Dawkins.
The easiest way to solve a cryptogram is just to go at it looking for frequently used letters, easy / common words, or letter combinations that provide inroads into guessing more letters until the message starts showing through. Once that happens, it’s just a matter of working through some details in order to completely solve the puzzle.
Khan academy shows a different way to solve the same type of problem, but by using a more objective, mathematical algorithm. Their solution is to carefully examine letter usage and make up a graph of commonly used letters that can be used to sort out the most common and least common letters in a cipher.
To challenge this, I though it would be interesting to replace the letters with symbols. It’s just a simple change, but it disallows people from just being able to plug the cipher into an ‘online decoder’. I looked online for some symbols to use and came across a good set that were already in place to do just this sort of thing.
For a hint into where these symbols come from, I would say that ‘Mozart’s Magic Flute threatened to expose the secret rituals of this group.’
However, I can also say that any letters can be used to stand in for the shapes, since even knowing what the representations of this cipher stand for, the message is still scrambled. So, any way that it’s done, it amounts to the same.
Here’s my coded message:
Translate that code anyway you please. Then you are faced with a standard substitution cipher. Only, the text that will be revealed is not in English, but a much older language. Because this text merely gives you the key. Once the key is obtained from this passage, it must be used to provide a password to open the vault.
Using the key, solve this shorter phrase and answer it’s riddle. (Hint: This time, the code is read directly into English. But the answer should not English – or in code.)
password: (enter in comments if you want to take a shot)
I think this is a pretty darned tough puzzle. I would be impressed if anyone could solve it. But if you do, leave the answer in the comments below. I may also give more hints if anyone does try to work on this and would like some help.
Next week, a film based on the life of Alan Turing is to be released that looks at how he became involved in cracking the ‘uncrackable’ Enigma Code used by the Axis during WWII. I’m eager to find a time to catch this as soon as possible.