Cryptography

The History and Mathematics of Codes and Code Breaking

Unfinished Business

To the amateur cryptographer, or simply the budding enthusiast, the Beale Ciphers represent the ideal, a perfect challenge, and, the clincher, buried treasure. Starting as children, we are read pirate stories: buried treasure, untold riches, fame and fortune for those who find it. The fact that the Beale Ciphers have a story to go along with them increases the draw. The possibility that a story is all this is lends to the sense of mystery, and to the success if one were to succeed in deciphering the first and third ciphers. For amateurs, I think there is always a pull around trying to decipher the big ciphers that no professional has been able to crack. Part of that pull seems like a lofty dream, and part of it seems like human ego: the "I can do it, even though no one else can" mentality.

To professional cryptographers, though, the Beale Ciphers, while they have all the same draws as for amateurs, also represent unfinished business. They are half-cracked, partially deciphered. Why aren't the other two ciphers decipherable? Are they really just gibberish? Giving up on something so fascinating, and something that has frustrated incredible cryptanalysts for over a century, isn't an option to a community of professional puzzle-solvers. Since the second cipher was deciphered, there's a sense of hope surrounding the Beale Ciphers, that maybe they are as real as the story would have us believe. And if they are real, how can cryptanalysts give up? Treasure worth $20 million in today's currency is mind-blowing. Not many people are going to turn their backs on that, especially if they think they have the ability to figure it out.

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2 Comments

  1. strutte

    I find this incredibly interesting; in the first blog post, we responded to the statement that “Cryptanalysis could not be invented until a civilization had reached a sufficiently sophisticated level of scholarship in several disciplines, including mathematics, statistics, and linguistics.” It is clear that we are currently at this level since we were also at it centuries ago. Yet, somehow, certain ciphers still remain unbroken even though we have many resources at our disposal. Not to mention, the widespread knowledge of the Beale ciphers makes it possible for almost any cryptographer, history buff, or amateur hacker to attempt to break them.

    This post also brings up an interesting point: what some romanticize to be a story of hidden treasure and potential fame is actually a cause of disappointment and exasperation for certain cryptographers. Even though some ciphers were broken, some remain intact. With such widespread expert brainpower being exerted on these ciphers, you would think that the solution would be right around the corner. But it was not and still is not. Even with centuries of cryptographic history and broken ciphers as inspiration, some codes remain unbroken to this day. The sense of mystery around these ciphers both intrigue and discourage people, and will most likely continue to do so for centuries to come.

  2. tsais

    I agree with the notion that people are far from giving up on the Beale cipher and the treasure hunt that is coupled with it. As "Riley" mentioned above, it is an elemental aspect of the human ego to possess the mindset of "I can do it, even if no one else can." After reading about the so-called “Beale legend,” I found myself thinking about what it would be like if I broke the cipher, and how $20 million could change my life. If simply reading a few pages on the Beale cipher inspired a burning curiosity within me, then one can only imagine how incredibly overcome expert cryptographers are with the desire to crack the Beale mystery.

    It is truly incredible that despite all of the technology of the modern age, the Beale cipher remains unbroken. The cipher dates back to the 1820s, and since then ciphers have become much more complex, and the technology to break ciphers has become much more advanced. Singh even says that at this day in age, code breakers have the upper hand to code makers. Singh’s explanation that Beale could have used a key that came from an original document of his is also very intriguing. If there is no access to the key, then there is no access to the cipher. Could Beale’s cipher be the real le chiffre indéchiffrable?

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