Temptation and Treasure

Although thousands of intelligent, well-trained people have attempted to break the Beale ciphers, they remain a mystery. However, the defeats of the past do not deter the many people who still try to crack the code. Some of these people are driven by the thought of the treasure buried by Beale years ago. A potential reward of $20 million can be highly motivating. For most, though, it is likely more than that—after all, trying to break an unbreakable code is sort of terrible as a get-rich-quick scheme. Instead, it is the tale itself that is the draw. A mysterious stranger, buried treasure, coded notes—it all reads like an adventure story, and that’s something people want to be a part of.  We are surrounded by stories like this our whole lives, and as children we play at being pirates following a map to the buried chest of gold. Attempting to solve the Beale ciphers makes this childhood game a reality.

Additionally, some cryptographers reason that someone has to eventually come up with a solution—so why not them? We often think that we will be able to be the one who solves a problem even if we’ve seen many people fail at the same task. This can be commonly seen in simple everyday tasks. If one person in a group tries to open a door and gives up, saying it’s locked or stuck, often others will test the handle for themselves. Even if they don’t consciously realize it, they believe that they will be able to do better than the first person—somehow if they jiggle the handle differently or apply enough pressure the door will open for them. The Beale ciphers are a locked door behind which lies the answer to a hundred-year-old mystery. It’s just too much to resist.

Persistence is the "key"

New things can seem very challenging at first. For example, a question seems so much simpler when we already have an answer to it. However, the question without the answer can seem very daunting, making it seem too difficult to even attempt. This is very similar to how the pattern of ciphering worked. First there was the shift cipher. When people realized what it was, it was extremely simple to decipher. Then there was the substitution cipher. This took a while for people to decipher. Some gave up, but then the Arabs developed frequency analysis. Once people understood frequency analysis, it was relatively easy to break.

Then came the Vigenere cipher. People were baffled. They didn’t understand how to break it, so many gave up in the process. They understood the concept but did not understand how to cryptanalyze it. Because people did not have a known way of breaking into the cipher, they simply gave up. However, it took cunning and persistence from Babbage to finally crack it. Once the way to crack it became relatively well known, people could easily decipher Vigenere ciphers with a little bit of time.

The reason why people gave up so easily is not because they did not want to break it but because they did not know where to start. With a new cipher, the cryptographers have the advantage over the cryptanalysts. The cryptanalysts were so used to frequency analysis that when a new “unbreakable” cipher came out, they did not know how or where to tackle it from. This led to lots of confusion and most of them simply giving up rather than persistently experimenting with different techniques.

Unbreakable Cipher

The Great Cipher used by Louis XIV remained unbroken for 200 years.  What were the factors that led to such a secure cipher?

The Great Cipher, invented by Antoine and Bonaventure Rossignol, was one of the toughest codes to decipher. There are some very important factors to consider when trying to understand why it may have taken so long for someone to crack it. First of all, Antoine got his recognition for deciphering the letter that resulted in a victory for the French. With his work in cryptanalysis he and his son were appointed to the senior positions in the court, so by this time he has already established his reputation as being one of the best cryptanalysts in Europe. His expertise gives him an advantage because he can recognize the weaknesses in ciphers, therefore when he has to create his own, he would know how to make it indecipherable. Of course, this is relative because ciphers can only stay indecipherable for so long before new methods are developed by cryptanalysts to break them. Second, it is usually a weakness to have a long cipher text because it gives the other person a better chance to recognize patterns, however, this cipher had thousands of symbols with only 587 of them being different. This only makes it a lot more difficult for someone to decipher it because it gives them too much information to work with which instead of showing a pattern, creates confusion. Finally, the more time that passes, the harder it is for someone to decipher a text because of lack of contextual clues. When it is the same time period, there is a better chance to crack a cipher text because you would be fully immersed in the linguistics of that society. Since language evolves over time it is best to try to decipher a code as soon as possible. Because of the complexity of the Great Cipher it did take a lot of dedication and persistence for Bazeries to finally crack it after 200 years.

The Value of Privacy

Why do you think that the advent of the telegraph motivated the use of a more secure cipher like the Vigenère cipher?

Prior to the telegraph, much of the communication was done so through hand written or typed correspondence. There was a sense of privacy when communicating through letters because they are sealed and it was assumed that only the intended recipient would read them. For people communicating more sensitive information, there was a chance that someone would intercept the letter and so enciphering it was standard in this case. The telegraph had the advantage of speed over the letter and so communication through telegraph was more favorable. However, a telegraph operator always reads the message when communicating via telegraph and so there is a decrease in privacy when using this system. This decrease in privacy could have been a motivation to use more secure ciphers like the Vigenère cipher. The only thing hindering people from using the Vigenère cipher over the Caesar cipher was the complexity and the amount of effort needed to implement the cipher. When there became a further decrease in privacy while using telegraphs, people may have realized that the extra effort needed to use the Vigenère cipher was worth it if it meant more privacy.

I think this can be seen presently with the advent of the Internet. The amount of privacy we have decreases when communicating through the Internet. To regain this privacy we do things like encrypt our data through the use of VPNs or by browsing websites that utilize SSL. A decrease in privacy because of the Internet has prompted us to go an extra step to regain it, and so it makes sense that the people that lived during the advent of the telegraph had done so as well.

The development of cipher

2.The Great Cipher used by Louis XIV remained unbroken for 200 years.  What were the factors that led to such a secure cipher?

The Great Cipher was invited by the father-and-son team of Antonine and Bonavenure Rossignol. They had a great amount of experience in the field of cipher and, after serving Louis XIV, had precious resource.

Since they spent so much time on enciphering and deciphering, they should know the most advanced technology to break the cipher at that time, which helped them improve the strength of the code they made. Thus they can improve the way they enciphered the message and made sure that no one could break the cipher and get the message with current technology. This cipher was so strong that it remained unbroken for 200 years after the death of them and the lose of the way to break the cipher.

I just remember the first blog I wrote. It was said that we could break the cipher with our knowledge even though breaking the cipher need the knowledge in the fields of mathematics, linguistics and statistics.  But now I thought the cipher has already developed to a so high level that only the experts in the field of cipher could took part in the work of cipher.

Phonetic Way of Mind

The Great Cipher used by Louis XIV remained unbroken for 200 years.  What were the factors that led to such a secure cipher?

The cipher was pioneered by a father and son duo, most of the specifics to how it exactly worked were known best by these two people. With the death of both father and son, the specifics of the cipher were quickly lost. When there are no people around that know how to use and reproduce the cipher, the motive to crack it is lost. There was some important information enciphered with The Great Cipher, however nobody was actively using it, so resources used to crack ciphers would be diverted to cracking ciphers used at that time. The lack of motive is the smallest reason as to why it took so long to crack; the cipher itself is very elegant and complex. This cipher was not one that took a written word then simply changed letters, it was a completely new way to write down the language. Languages operate with distinct sounds that can be represented by letters, putting two letters together will change the sound. Writing a cipher with syllables in mind will make it more difficult to crack, especially to a cryptanalyst who writes with an alphabetic language (like English). On top of that, The Great Cipher had certain traps put into place that would make certain parts look like gibberish causing cryptanalyst to reevaluate the type of cipher.

In my opinion, a syllabary cipher would be most effective today. This is because most of society is literate and thinks in a similar manner to the way we write, letter for letter, not letter for sound. Using syllables, but re-vamping it with more traps, would confuse people because they are not used to naturally thinking in that manner when writing.

 

(I double checked some facts here http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/English_orthography and here http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Syllabary)

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.

Not Your Average Monoalphabetic Cipher

The Great Cipher used by Louis XIV remained unbroken for 200 years.  What were the factors that led to such a secure cipher?

The father-son team of Antoine and Bonaventure Rossignol invented The Great Cipher while working closely with Louis XIV as his cryptanalysts. Initially, they were mainly code breakers, but their skill gave them the idea to create a much stronger way to encrypt messages. This idea turned into the Great Cipher. This cipher was very useful for the French and no enemy cryptanalysts were able to crack it. Unfortunately, the Rossignols's death also meant that the Great Cipher's secrets were lost and any archives encoded using it could no longer be read. Although this was inconvenient for the French, the real struggle would be experienced by future generations of code breakers. Eventually letters encrypted by the Great Cipher were passed on to Étienne Bazeries who worked tirelessly to decipher the letters. The high security of the cipher made it nearly impossible to decode.

The first factor that led to this secure cipher was the amount of characters included. 587 different characters immediately made it clear that the it was not a substitution cipher and later, Étienne also discovered it was not a homophonic cipher (a cipher that replaces letters with a proportional number of symbols to how often that letter is used). Later he would also try to decipher it as a digraph (one number represents a pair of letters), but this also was not correct. The grunt work that decoding the Great Cipher must have required is astonishing because the text says each idea could take Étienne multiple months to prove wrong. Eventually, Étienne was struck with the idea that each number represented a whole syllable. After tirelessly working on this idea, he was able to decode 124-22-125-46-345 as meaning "les ennemis". This crucial breakthrough led to Étienne's eventual success despite variations in the cipher and traps laid by the Rossignols. This elaborate cipher truly deserved its name as "The Great Cipher".

Blog Assignment #3

Ghost WriterFor your third blog assignment, write a post between 200 and 400 words in which you respond to one of the reading questions for Singh Chapter 2. If there's some aspect of the reading that strikes you as particularly interesting that's not addressed by one of the reading questions, feel free to write about that instead. And if you would rather comment on one of your classmate's posts instead of making your own post, that will count! Just be sure your comment fits that 200-400 word range.

Please give your post a descriptive title, and use the "Student Posts" category for your post. Also, give your post at least three tags. You're encouraged to use tags already in the system if they apply to your post.

Your post is due by 8:00 a.m. on Wednesday, September 17th. If you have any technical questions about sharing your post here on the blog, don't hesitate to ask.

Image: "Ghost Writer," by me, Flickr (CC)

Reading Questions for Singh Chapter 2

Here are a few questions about Singh Chapter 2 you might consider as you read.

  1. For some time before the development of the Vigenère cipher, “anybody sending an encrypted message had to accept that an expert enemy codebreaker might intercept and decipher their most precious secrets.” (Singh, p. 45)  How is this environment different from the one that Mary Queen of Scots experienced, where one didn’t know how likely it was that one’s encrypted message was secure?
  2. The Great Cipher used by Louis XIV remained unbroken for 200 years.  What were the factors that led to such a secure cipher?
  3. Why do you think that the advent of the telegraph motivated the use of a more secure cipher like the Vigenère cipher?
  4. Prior to the work of Babbage and Kisiki, “most cryptanalysts had given up all hope of ever breaking the Vigenère cipher.”  Given that the Vigenère cipher was well-known, what might lead a cryptanalyst of that time to give up hope in cracking it?
  5. Singh notes that in the latter half of the 19th century, there was “an enormous growth of interest in ciphers among the general public.” (p. 79)  What factors do you think led to this growth?  Would you say there is interest in ciphers among the general public today?
  6. The Beale Ciphers have remained unbroken for over a hundred years.  Given that hundreds if not thousands of professional and amateur cryptanalysts have tried to break them without success, why do you think there are still people who attempt to break them?  What motivates people like that?