Cryptography

The History and Mathematics of Codes and Code Breaking

Tag: Treasure

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.

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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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Motivation Behind Cracking the Beale Ciphers

In my opinion, I think the main reason people are still trying to break the Beale Cipher is based on the 20 million dollars worth in gold that is supposedly buried. Money can make people do crazy things and people often won't think about the thousands of other people that have tried and failed and the chance that there is no treasure to be found! Along with the fact that so much money is at stake, the second cipher was cracked using the Declaration of Independence so people probably feel like there is hope. If none of the three ciphers were cracked then less people would try probably. Some other people probably want to crack the code out of pure pride. Since so many people have tried and didn't succeed, then if the cryptography world would give them a lot of respect.

Image "Fishpool gold coins" by Lawrence OP, Flickr (CC)

The Motivation of Mystery

The Beale Ciphers have challenged thousands of cryptanalysts for the past hundred years.  The Beale Ciphers consist of three ciphers and are seemingly unbreakable.  While most professionals would give up after several unsuccessful attempts, people still continue to try and break them.  The ciphers remain a mystery while hiding a very rewarding treasure.  The motivation to break these ciphers may simply lie in the wealth one could acquire if they cracked the ciphers.  However, the human mind is very curious, and with each uncovered step, our curiosity increases.  The Beale Ciphers possess a lure due to the fact that one of the ciphers has already been broken.  This has provided hope for current professionals and amateurs, making them believe that the key can be found.  On the other hand, history has shown that even the most difficult ciphers (i.e. the Great cipher) can be cracked.  People still attempt to break them because the fame associated with such a discovery would be equally as rewarding. Ultimately, these factors have kept the Beale Ciphers under constant scrutiny to this day, despite how difficult they are to solve.

Image "Keyhole" by StudioTempura, Flickr (CC)

The Temptation of the Beale Ciphers

The $20 million treasure of the Beale ciphers immediately grabs the attention of any amateur or professional cryptanalyst. The sheer amount of money involved with the Beale ciphers serves as the main attraction for those who want to break the cipher. In addition to monetary gain, the cryptanalyst who breaks the cipher will become famous, unlike the cryptanalysts who work in secretive military settings. As more people attempt to break the cipher and fail, the recognition and potential fame increase. The combination of money and fame is reason enough to try to pursue the solution of the Beale ciphers. However, an aspect of human nature also pushes people to try to crack the cipher. People naturally believe that they might notice a clue or hint that has been overlooked by others. They might see themselves as more cunning or clever, and therefore more capable of breaking the cipher. Also, because the second message has already been uncovered, the idea that the cipher is breakable exists. People naturally assume that the other two can be solved because one of the ciphers has already been solved. A more uncommon reason why someone might decide to pursue the cipher might be to try his/her luck. If the ciphers were viewed as a lottery, the person that happens to stumble upon the text used to create the cipher would colloquially “hit the jackpot.”

Image: "here's hoping," by Robert Donovan, Flickr (CC)

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The Motivation Behind Beale's Mystery

Contradictory to the recurring theme of cryptography, it seems as though a certain cipher shall remain impervious to the demystifying test of time. After 100 years of collective effort from professional and amateur cryptanalysts alike, the enticing Beale cipher continues to serve its cryptic purpose. Ironically, its renowned success in befuddling hundreds, if not thousands, of cryptanalysts has in turn attracted additional challengers up to the task of deciphering Beale’s $20 million message. While some cast doubt upon the letter’s authenticity, and others argue that given its authenticity the cipher may never be discovered, the puzzle continually baits the public’s fruitless efforts. But why try where so many others have failed?

Firstly, there exists a tangible reward of considerable value. The treasure as described by Beale is now estimated at a jaw-dropping $20 million – a lucrative reward for solving a single puzzle. Monetary compensation, however, seems a fanciful outcome given the chances that someone might have already discovered the cipher along with the money, or just as simply stumbled across the hidden treasure throughout the course of 100 years. Furthermore, money hardly stands as the driving force behind the efforts of professional intellectuals who presumably practice cryptography for the mystery rather than reward.

Therefore, we may assume that the attraction of a mystery, in most cases, is the mystery itself. Aside from the fame and whatever tangible compensation one receives from unwinding a mystery, personal satisfaction is the main reward. Mysteries lure by way of promising intellectual gratification and abatement of curiosity. Hundreds flock to the Beale ciphers not only for the possibility of gaining fortune, but for the sake of solution, and making order of the problematic, organized chaos that is cryptographic encryption. The Beale cipher presents a formidably reputable puzzle, and there will always be challenger driven by the curiosity of human nature.

The Lure of The Beale Ciphers

The Beale Ciphers have stumped some of the greatest cryptographers for over a hundred years. The cipher is most likely based off of a piece of literature that serves as the key. This book or text may no longer exist and some believe that Beale himself may have written it. Despite this daunting history of the Beale Ciphers, people continue to try to decipher the letters to lead them to the treasure described in the second Beale letter. These people are incredibly motivated by wealth and fame. The idea of cracking a cipher that so many people have failed at is enticing, as is the promised reward of items worth millions of dollars. Curious treasure hunters, amateur and professional cryptographers can’t resist the urge to attempt the frustrating cipher.

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