The History and Mathematics of Codes and Code Breaking

Tag: Elonka Dunin

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.


The Smithy Code: A Look Into Multiple Encryption

On Elonka's website, there is an explanation and solution to the Smithy Code. The Smithy Code was embedded in the ruling for a plagiarism trial concerning Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code. Justice Peter Smith italicized several letters which spelled out "S m i t h y c o d e J a e i e x t o s t g p s a c g r e a m q w f k a d p m q z v -" -- "Smithy code" is in English, and the rest is ciphertext which evidently involves a polyalphabetic substitution cipher. According to the explanation, Smith used a series of Caesar shifts based on the letters that correspond to the numbers of the Fibonacci sequence. Usually, this would be 1-1-2-3-..., which would correspond to A-A-B-C-.... However, Smith added a twist and replaced the letter B with the letter Y. He then used a grid of the Caesar shifts and found the plaintext letter in the grid, then traced it up to the letter at the top of the column to encipher it, similar to the way one would decode a Vigenère cipher.

In class, we have discussed Caesar ciphers, polyalphabetic substitution ciphers, and the Vigenère cipher (a type of polyalphabetic cipher). The Smithy Code was an intricate interweaving of all of these methods and a method inspired by The Da Vinci Code (the Fibonacci Sequence), because of the novel's relevance to the trial. It was a fascinating look into a method by which several ciphers can be used, and how far common knowledge and research about cryptography has come in order for these methods to be implemented.

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The Sign of Zodiac

I found Elonka Dunin's website to be greatly interesting. Her small bits of information about the Zodiac Killer on her List of Famous Unsolved Codes and Ciphers specifically caught my eye. Before now, I had of course heard of this serial killer and his or her bold ciphers. However, I had not thought about it in a long time--definitely not since before the start of this course. Her little comments on it, both in her list and her book, The Mammoth Book of Secret Code Puzzles, are just enough to reignite interest in this decades-old mystery. To me, this reveals another area in which cryptanalysis can be put to use--solving not only messages in times of war, as we have discussed in class, but also messages involved in criminal activities. We've discussed the uses of cryptography in wartime extensively, but have not taken it quite from the realm of counterintelligence to that of criminal justice.

The uses of cryptography in criminal justice are quite similar to those in counterintelligence. Both involve determining the enemy's intentions, and possibly his or her motives. In cases of criminal justice, investigators can use cryptanalysis to either analyze intercepted messages or to understand evidence left behind at a crime scene. To me, the case of the Zodiac Killer also sparks my psychological curiosity. This serial killer had to have a reason for sending the encrypted messages to law enforcement. These motives could be power, confidence, pride, or many other things. Successful cryptanalysis of the unsolved messages could reveal these motives, and possibly provide more evidence as to his or her identity.

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Cryptographic Creativity

What I was struck most by throughout Ms. Dunin's talk was the fact that she had such a vast amount of knowledge in such a wide array of categories. She is not only an expert code breaker, but a professional code maker. She talked about her experience in the gaming industry, her understanding of steganography, and her world travels to find different pieces of cryptographic artwork. Her work experience includes not only authoring books in the above categories, but also time spent stationed in California (to which I take a particular interest) in the US Air Force. Her website brags about her personal accomplishments including her ability to speak numerous languages - which probably was supplemented by her travels to every continent. On top of all of that, she is an official administrator on Wikipedia, with over 69,000 edits.

While perusing her credentials, I was astonished by the incredible breadth of her experience. How could one woman have time for all of these things? On top of all that, where did she find time to learn about cryptography. The more I thought about it, however, I realized that her cryptographic knowledge didn't happen in spite of her educational life experience; rather the vast array of skills that she has acquired throughout her life is, more likely than not, directly correlated to her ability to decipher so adeptly.

We have talked in class numerous times about the skills that are most important in code breaking. Is it luck? Creativity? Logic? We also know from our reading that the most successful codebreaking happened when people from many different disciplines have come together to perform great feats of cryptanalysis with their combined skills. Elonka has a background in code making, a largely math based profession. She also is adept at linguistics, obvious from her ability to speak so many languages. She has had the opportunity to glean knowledge from every corner of the internet during her time at PhrekNIC and as a Wikipedia administrator. She is, undoubtedly, in the position to be the most qualified of cryptanalysts.

Elonka has accomplished incredible things during her career as a cryptanalyst. She described in class how she casually jumped into codebreaking at a conference, and then let it become a large part of her life. Is this surprising? No, rather it is inspiring. The study of cryptography is not limited. In its purest form, it is all inclusive.


4 Codes, 1 Sculpture: Kryptos

During the talk Elonka gave to the class on Friday, I found myself fixating on one thing, Kryptos. I was so surprised by the fact that there was a statue located on the grounds of the CIA, which has an unsolved code written on it. The CIA are supposed to be some of the greatest minds of our time, and they can't solve a cipher that is quite literally sitting right in front of them.

To give a little more information, Kryptos is a large sculpture which contains four codes. Each of these codes was placed onto the sculpture by stamping through the metal, so that the letters are holes in the metal. The four codes were created by Ed Scheidt, who at the time was the Chairman of the CIA Cryptographic Center.  The first three codes have been solved, by the public and from within the CIA, but the fourth remains a mystery.

The connection between Kryptos and our course is fairly obvious. Four encrypted messages, or codes, in a class about codemaking and codebreaking? Sounds like exactly what we're looking for I think. It's also worth mentioning that the first codes use a Vigenere cipher, something that we were discussing in class at the time Elonka came to visit. Vigenere ciphers were the code standard for quite some time, so it doesn't surprise me at all that they were used for a sculpture as famous as Krpytos.

Many famously unsolved codes were solved at a much later time. With this famous code sitting in front of some of the world's best codebreakers, I am sure that Kryptos will soon be cracked. Maybe Elonka will be the one to solve Kryptos, or maybe even one of the students of our course.

Here's a link to her Kryptos page:


Unsolved Codes and Ciphers

While exploring Elonka Dunin's website, I came across her list of "Famous Unsolved Codes and Ciphers."  I thought that this section was particularly interesting because we have read about some of the ciphers or codes in class, and it fascinates me that despite the copious amount of technological and historical resources that we have at our hands, impenetrable ciphers and codes still exist.

Elonka ranked the unsolved codes and ciphers based on their "fame," which she determined by how many times they appeared in articles or how many "hits" they had on Google.  The first cipher she listed was the Beale Cipher, which we read about in The Code Book by Simon Singh.  The Beale Ciphers include three documents that detail the location of a secret treasure, which according to Singh is worth $20 million by today's standards.  One of the papers has been solved, which is how knowledge of this hidden treasure first came about; however, the other two papers, which apparently hold the secret to the treasure's location, remain unsolved.

We discussed in class how despite the Beale cipher's impenetrability, its mystery provides incredible intrigue for cryptographers.  The desire to crack the cipher will live on for some time.  Elonka says on her website that there have been many "claimed solutions" (which she provides a link to), as well as speculation that the entire thing is a hoax.  Both were points brought up in class, and I thought it was really interesting to see firsthand accounts, provided by Elonka, of individuals attempting to break the cipher.

At the bottom of the page, Elonka also includes a list of "Famous Unsolved Codes That Have Since Been Solved."  It is fascinating that codes and ciphers that were once determined impenetrable were later solved.  I believe that this is the reason why many still have hope for ciphers such as the Beale Cipher.  If Edgar Allen Poe's Cryptographic Challenge ciphers were broken after 150 years, why can't the Beale Cipher?


Blog Assignment #5

Sketchnotes of Elonka Dunin's Talk on KryptosFor your fifth blog assignment, write a post between 200 and 400 words in which you (a) describe something interesting you find on Elonka Dunin's website and (b) draw a connection between your find and a topic from this course. You're welcome to follow up on something she mentioned in her talk on Friday, or explore some other topic from her website. Just be sure to connect what you write about to something else we've discussed in the course.

Important: Scan the blog posts submitted by your peers. If someone else has blogged about the item you'd like to write about, that's fine--just don't start a new post on that topic. Instead, leave a comment (between 200 and 400 words) in which you build on the post, drawing a different connection to the course or extending the connection identified by the original poster.

If you're an original poster, 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 9:00 a.m. on Friday, October 9th.

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