Cryptography

The History and Mathematics of Codes and Code Breaking

Tag: cryptography (Page 1 of 4)

When Cryptographers Die

There were many strong ciphers that seemed impossible to decipher, but only one has the name "Great Cipher." The Great Cipher stood undecipherable for 200 years. Created by Antoine and Bonaventure Rossignol, it was used by King Louis XIV as a way to keep his secrets hidden, "protect details of his plans, plots, and political schemes." He was impressed by the cipher and the Rossignols' so much he gave the father-son duo offices near his apartments.

What made the Great Cipher so great was the combination of its use of syllables as cipher text in the form of numbers, and the death of both Antoine and Bonaventure. The Great Cipher was secure because it turned basic french syllables into cipher text into numbers, specifically 587 of them. As mentioned before, 200 years went by before it was deciphered. Many people tried their hand at the cipher and ultimately failed, died, or gave up before they could solve it. Along with the death of the Rossignols, there was no one to read the messages. This lead to messages being unreadable for years, thus securing the cipher for years until Etienne Bazeries deciphered the Great Cipher. This still took him a total of 3 years of work of using various techniques. Some of these techniques led to gibberish and complete restarts of his journey. He finally considered the numbers could be syllables, then he found a single word, "les ennemis," from a cluster of numbers that appeared several times. From here he could examine the other parts of cipher texts and decipher them.

The Great Cipher is remembered as one of the most secure ciphers in all of history. The techniques used to decipher it are still used in other deciphering techniques, and it is one of the "forefathers" of today's unsolved ciphers.

Security vs Privacy: The Dangers of too much Authority

Chapter four of Little Brother really made me mad due to the abuse of basic human rights the American government was willing to surpass in order to receive more legalized power. Expanding on this problem, I am going to address how the governments abuse of Marcus and other captives basic human rights directly relate to the government trying to get more legal power through the public's fear. When Marcus was captured, bagged, and brought to an interrogation facility, nicked named Gintmo-On-The-Bay, his fourth amendment right was violated. The fourth amendment states "[t]he right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized (Cornell Law School)." Marcus' personal digital activity and information was searched unreasonably, he was seized illegally, and he was forced to sign a paper saying he was voluntarily seized and interrogated which I would consider a violation of the fifth amendment which protects people from self incrimination. Because of the government trying to "secure" it violated peoples rights. The governments concern with security, in this case, was false making their actions even worse. The American government in Little Brother had a goal of taking advantage of a terrorist attack and blaming it on the lack of security. From there the government would expand on its power by persuading citizens to support laws that give the government more surveillance control over the citizens themselves. This is dangerous because as the government receives more surveillance power, it becomes easier to label a protester as terrorist. Once this happens, innocent people such as Marcus, will be captured and interrogated based on faulty information.

A false sense of security

In Chapter 1 of Singh’s The Code Book, he states that “The cipher of Mary Queen of Scots clearly demonstrates that a weak cipher can be worse than no cipher at all”. Singh means that sometimes having a layer of security can be more detrimental than having none at all because it gives the sender and receiver a false sense of security.

If the sender and receiver are under a false sense of security due to their encryption, they are under the assumption that if it is intercepted it will not be deciphered. Thus, they may be think it is fine to make their intentions clear in the passage, or even worse, give details of other unnecessary information. However, this provides incriminating evidence in ‘black and white’ — literally. This is demonstrated by Babington’s ease in providing details of the plot to Queen Elizabeth as well as providing the names of his co-conspirators. However, if there was no encryption, both sender and receiver would be more inclined to make sure the message didn’t contain any information that could incriminate them as well as taking further measures to ensure that the message doesn’t get into the hands of the enemy, unlike Babington’s trust of Gifford, who was acting as a double agent. Singh also implies that people who, like Babington, tried to keep their messages safe through ciphers often overestimated the strength of their ciphers. This often lead to an incorrect feeling security which in turn ended badly, and in some cases tragically.

To conclude, looking back at the tragic story of Queen Mary, Singh suggests that even though you may encipher your text, you should not feel overly comfortable or safe. Rather, you should err on the side of caution, both in the delivery and in the content of the message that has been encrypted.

A False Sense of Security

In saying "The cipher of Mary Queen of Scots clearly demonstrates that a weak encryption can be worse than no encryption at all.", I believe that Singh is implying that in using a cipher, Mary and her recipient felt much safer than if they had used no encryption at all. They believe their message is secure, so they do not feel the need to be discrete in their language. Had they not used any encryption, the content of their messages would not have been nearly as direct as it was with the encryption.
For those who attempt to keep their communication secret through encryption, this statement implies that their encryption method needs to be rather strong if they expect it to be effective at concealing their messages. One cannot hope to use a simple Caesar cipher effectively, as that encryption method is rather weak. It could be cracked by even the lowliest of amateur cryptographers in a small amount of time. The fact that Singh describes the cipher of Mary Queen of Scots, an encryption method that I couldn't hope to begin to comprehend, to be weak implies that for an encryption method to be effective, it must be very complex. This tells me that unless you and your recipient are seasoned cryptographers, you shouldn't bother trying to encrypt your messages, for one could decrypt them with ease. Instead, you should try to use more discrete language and keep in mind that your words could very well fall into the hands of your enemies.

A False Sense of Security Plus Treason Equals Death

Portrait of Mary, Queen of Scots. BBC

Portrait of Mary, Queen of Scots. BBC

In Singh's The Code Book, the story of Mary Queen of Scots illustrates the dangers of having a false sense of security.  There are countless examples throughout history, but perhaps the most well-known example of a false sense of security is George Washington's crossing of the Delaware to attack the British on that fabled December night in 1776. The British had wrongfully believed that Washington's men were incapacitated and unable to attack, and as such they let down their guard. As we all know, Washington and his men pounced at this opportunity and were able to turn the tide in the American Revolution. If the British had not become so complacent and careless in their actions then the very country we live in probably does not exist today.

In this same sense, Mary and her fellow conspirators "let down their guard" by explicitly detailing plans of attack, names of conspirators, and other incriminating information in their letters. In saying that "The cipher of Mary Queen of Scots clearly demonstrates that a weak encryption can be worse than no encryption at all" (Singh 41), Singh is telling us that if someone believes they are using a strong encryption system, even if it is easy to crack, then they will be apt to send important information via the encryption system. However, if one knows that an encryption system is insecure, then they will be much more likely to restrict the information in the letters. In Mary's case, she fell victim to believing that her encryption system was much stronger than it was, and as a result once Thomas Phellipes easily deciphered the letters, she was sentenced to death. If Mary's group of conspirators had known their code could be easily broken, perhaps they would have been able to successfully take back the throne.

While this would seem to suggest to others using cryptography that they should not send any incriminating information via enciphered text, at the same time there might not be a better option. One has to wonder what better alternatives Mary and her co-conspirators had, even if they had known that their code could be broken. The letters were all being intercepted anyways, so in reality the plan could never have succeeded. However, Mary did teach anyone contemplating the use of encryption at least one thing:

A False Sense of Security + Treason = Death

Illegal Math: Fact not Fiction

I chose the beginning of chapter 17, when Marcus and Ange went to the journalist, Barbara Stratford, to expose the rampant abuses of power that were occurring in San Francisco. During this, they discovered that Barbara herself had covered the original ‘crypto wars’ in the 90’s. Barbara describes how the government had labeled cryptography as a munition and made it illegal to use it or export it, all in the name of national security. While I thought this was really interesting, the next sentence blew my mind. This means that we had ILLEGAL math. MATH, made illegal.

Can you imagine there being a time when certain equations and formulae were considered illegal? This interests me most because less than two decades after this illegal math, we are taking a class specifically about this illegal math. We’ve seen in class how cryptography has been used throughout history, and it always has been, and probably always will be, a part of life in government. However, it was always that it was only accessible to the wealthy, and those in government. No one else could afford the knowledge required, so we couldn’t keep secrets from the government. With the rapid spread of computers and advancement in technology, suddenly average citizens could afford to encode their messages, and it is very interesting to me that the government was so threatened by this that they felt the need to ban this knowledge.

Of course, it is also my opinion that, like Prohibition, this just proliferated the use of cryptography, but with even less government control. My favorite part of class so far has been our discussions about the intersection of cryptography, government, and privacy, which is why Little Brother, and especially this chapter hold my interest so well. With cryptography and cryptanalysis becoming ever more advanced, it will be exciting to see how the government handles all this as well.

Rejewski and Turing

One of the main reasons for the success of the Allied cryptanalysts at Bletchley Park over German cryptographers is the acquisition of the previous work of the Polish on the German Enigma. Polish cryptanalyst, Marian Rejewski, led the polish to first break Enigma in 1932, and kept up with breaking any new security the Germans implemented to strengthen Enigma, until in 1939, when the Germans increased the number of plugboard connections from 5 to 8 to 7 to 10, which made cryptanalysis extremely more difficult. This spurred the Polish to disclose all their work on Enigma to the Allies, especially as the likelihood for another war was growing. Thus, when war broke out and the need to break Enigma became of utmost importance, the Allies had a head start on breaking the codes, as they already had acquired intelligence on Enigma.

Another curious and more indirect reason why the Allies were ultimately successful was because Britain never found out that Alan Turing was a homosexual. Turing was the one of the most important men in the war in that he led the cryptanalyst team at Bletchley Park to victory in breaking Enigma. At the time, homosexuality in Britain was illegal and it was very fortunate that the state never found out about Alan Turing’s case during the war, otherwise Turing probably would never had made it to Bletchley.  Needless to say, if Turing had not been working for the Allies during the war, Enigma may never have been broken and the Germans may have won.

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The Mammoth Book of Secret Codes and Cryptograms

Not only is Elonka Dunin able to solve extremely difficult codes and ciphers, but she is also able to create them and teach others the techniques to solve them, which truly shows a mastery of the skill. She illustrates this talent in her book that was released in 2006 called The Mammoth Book of Secret Codes and Cryptograms. I really want to read this book because it includes a wide range of fun brain teasers such as secret messages, substitution ciphers, historical ciphers used by Julius Caesar or JFK, etc. She also includes tips to solve some of the most famous ciphers in history such as the fourth section of Kryptos or the Zodiac Killer ciphers.

The book seems like a fun and interactive way to extend my knowledge and cryptography, and it also relates to some of the things we have discussed in class this year. Of course, it include Kryptos which Elonka Dunin came in to teach us a little about, but we have also learned about the Caesar ciphers (substitution ciphers where the alphabet is just shifted), and we probably have the tools to solve some of the low to medium levels of ciphers that she includes in her text. Overall, I am excited to read her book because it will be an interactive way to learn how to solve more difficult ciphers and extend my knowledge on the history of cryptography.

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Hidden In Plain Sight

While almost everything on Elonka Dunin's website seemed very interesting, the one thing that stood out the most to me was her presentation on steganography. She goes into great detail on what exactly steganography is, and whether or not terrorists were truly utilizing steganography to spread hidden messages. Elonka found that to this date, Al Qaeda's members have never utilized digital steganography to spread messages. Although there was great speculation and some instances that pointed to this being true, Elonka found no convincing evidence that this was the case.

Elonka also goes on to show interesting examples of steganography, such as the "sekrit" page. The page had numbers that translated into an ISBN number for the book "Disappearing Cryptography, which contained information on steganography. The page also featured anagrams and steganographically hidden small files, which contained information on opening a message hidden elsewhere in the code. She also showed numerous examples of modern steganography, especially hiding messages inside pictures.

After showing examples of steganography and how it is employed, Elonka detailed ways in which to defeat steganography. She highlighted the "Three D's of Defeating Steganography" - Detection, Decryption, and Deletion. Detection involves examining an image for irregularities or changes in patterns. Decryption involves obtaining a password or information about how the message was encrypted. Finally, deletion involves cropping an image or changing an intercepted message in some way to remove the stegonographic image. Although you won't be able to decipher it, the intended receiver will no longer be able to find the message either.

I enjoyed going through Elonka's presentation as it presented a lot of cool information about steganography, which we haven't been able to cover in depth in class. She covered various forms of steganography, how to beat it, and intriguing examples of steganography in use. Especially interesting were the various sites and programs that could create steganographically hidden messages for you, with the user only needing to provide the message. While the ciphers covered in class, such as the monoalphabetic and vigenère ciphers, were difficult but not impossible to beat, steganography could be a powerful way to protect information. If you have no idea where to look or how to begin, the message may easily skip past you without you even realizing a message was present.

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Odd Drawings and a Secret Script: The Voynich Manuscript

While perusing Elonka’s website, I was fascinated by her page of “Famous Unsolved Codes and Ciphers”. Like Sara stated in her blog post, it is so astonishing to think about how even with modern technology and current knowledge, there are still numerous ancient ciphers that have yet to be broken, including the Beale Ciphers and the Voynich Manuscript.

I was not surprised that the Beale Ciphers was seated at the top of the list, which was ordered in terms of “fame.” In class, we discussed how its popularity most likely stemmed from the monetary prize associated with cracking it. Both professional cryptanalysts and amateurs have taken a crack at the Beale Ciphers, motivated largely by the potential of finding $20 million worth of treasure.

Although we have discussed the Beale Ciphers at length in class, the majority of the ciphers on the list were foreign to me. I found the Voynich Manuscript to be particularly intriguing. The Voynich Manuscript, which was constructed in the early 1400s, is a staggering 232 pages long. Its uniqueness stems from the fact that it not only contains text, but that it consists of drawings as well. Eccentric drawings of plants, herbal recipes, astrological diagrams, and humans in plumbing-like contraptions dominate its pages. This makes me wonder: what role do the drawings serve? Do the drawings contain the key to decrypting the text?

In class, we talked about the advantage of having a substantial amount of encrypted text when attempting to break a cipher. The Voynich Manuscript poses no problem in this respect. However, it is written in an unknown script of which there is no known other example of in the world. The script is alphabetic in nature, but shares no letters with any English or European alphabets. While this greatly elevates the difficulty of decrypting the script, it makes the manuscript equally more intriguing as well.

The Voynich Manuscript is considered ‘The Most Mysterious Manuscript in the World.’ Although it is possible that it is just a great hoax with no true meaning, crpytanalysts continue to devote extreme amounts of time and effort towards decoding it. Not only would decryption explain the strange drawings, but it would also reveal a new language never seen before. The Voynich Manuscript is simply fascinating; how and when it will be solved still remain a complete mystery, but I eagerly await its decryption.

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