Cryptography

The History and Mathematics of Codes and Code Breaking

Tag: Mystery

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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Uncovering the Unknown

The main reason for the Beale ciphers being so incredibly enduring and tough to crack is because they require a unique keytext such as a book or letter. This allows the cryptographer to be limitlessly creative in the construction of a keytext. It could be a personal letter or a well-known book. The motivation that some cryptanalysts still have to break the Beale ciphers comes from both intrinsic motivation and gain of wealth and fame. The feeling of breaking such a difficult cipher can give people a rush of self-satisfaction which can be enough to motivate anyone. Uncovering this cipher could bring joy to a true cryptoanalyst.There are also the gold, silver, and jewels involved which would advance the wealth of a code breaker.

Beale Cipher Continues to Confound Cryptographers

The Beale Cipher has, for many years, stumped the best and brightest cryptographers in their quest to not only decipher the text, but also discover the treasure behind it. Despite years of unsuccessful attempts to decipher the complex cryptography, many cryptanalysts continue to analyze the cipher Beale created. The fruitless efforts of many analysts must have a much deeper cause than a simple search for treasure.

The enigma of the Beale Cipher drives cryptanalysts to further pursue its deciphering. The motivation comes from the mystery that lies behind its message and its key. A sort of reverse psychology plays a role in its mystery. The cipher has been deemed unattainable to any that have tried it; yet, the inherit inability to solve it motivates other cryptanalysts to try and break it. Just as children who are told they should not touch the stove do it anyways, cryptanalysts regard the difficulty of the cipher not as a warning, but as a challenge.

In an attempt to define the motivation behind cryptanalysts' quest, one must also consider our ever changing world. Each day, new technology emerges, developments in research are made, and new masterpieces are created. With this constantly developing society comes the social drive to outdo others' achievements. While no one has yet solved the Beale cipher, cryptanalysts see the challenge as an opportunity to outdo their peers, using the technological advancements of today to drive their discovery.

Image "Bound to Make the Connection" by Jackson, Flickr (CC)

Sense of Nonsense

It is amazing to think that in the current age there are still mysteries waiting to be sovled. The progress of science has made so many advances and solved so many problems that it seems almost as if there can't be any mysteries left. Amazingly, after 100 years, the Beale ciphers have remained an uncrackable mystery. Considering the amount of resources, time, and manpower that has been spent on this two page cipher, it's very reasonable to say that if it hasn't been cracked by now, it might not ever be. Even though hundreds of people have tried, failed, and wasted years of their lives on this one cipher, people still believe that they will be the one person to figure out the mystery. The easiest explanation of this drive is simply greed. The one page of the Beale cipher that was decrypted referred to a buried treasure worth over $20 million. That amount of money is tempting to any person, treasure hunter or not. Though the dollar sum itself is motivation, there is also another part to mysteries that drives people's need to figure them out. The human brain is naturally curious, and when things don't make sense we want to find a way to make sense of it. The desire to organize this chaotic world is why humans like to imagine the outline of a snake or a bear in the stars when they are really just randomly placed dots of light. Naturally contradictory, people at the same time love the mystery and suspense of a hidden buried treasure and love to make sense of nonsense. Though the Beale ciphers might really be impossible to crack, there will never be a shortage of people working to be that one person who solves yet another mystery of this world.

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The Mystery of the Unknown


Beale Papers Pamphlet
The Beale Cipher is indeed one of the modern mysteries of cryptography, and the fact that it is mostly unbroken can either mean one of two things: the answer continues to allude the thousands of cryptanalysts and treasure hunters who have tried thus far, or the cipher is indeed faked, and there is no actual solution. If it is indeed the latter and the cipher is a fake, then there is no reason for people to continue. There would be no treasure for the treasure hunters, and there would be no actual solution to find for the people who just want to solve the cipher.

However, the fact is that no one knows for sure whether the cipher is a fake or not, meaning that there is a chance that there is an actual solution, and maybe even an actual treasure.

It is unlikely, however, that at this point in time the actual worth of the treasure has any significant effect on the desire to crack the code, but it is possible. The fact that so many people have failed to crack it means that no one person can really expect to solve it, hence the likelihood they solve the code and find the treasure must be really small. Therefore, the majority of the motivation for looking for the solution is probably just the mystery that surrounds the code, the fact that it is unsolved. These are the types of people who are doing it for fun, because they can. What better reason is there than that.

Image Credit: "Beale Papers" Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain)

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The Beale Ciphers Continue to "Puzzle" Cryptanalysts

The Beale Ciphers remain tantalizing to this day for two main reasons. First, the magnitude of the reward is impressive. $20 million is a lot more money than the average American will see in his or her lifetime. Coming into such a sum by simply solving a puzzle seems ridiculous.

Which leads to the next reason: because the Beale Ciphers are “simply” puzzles, it stands to reason that a person may have some insight that none of the previous cryptanalysts have had. There is a chance that any individual, professional or amateur, may stumble upon the correct answer. Because stories such as these are impressive, history has preserved them, which feeds our belief that we could be the next such lucky individual.

 Image: "Puzzled," by Mykl Roventine

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