The History and Mathematics of Codes and Code Breaking

Tag: civilization

Easier to Learn, or Easier to Access?

I believe that, while a high level of scholarship was required to develop the frequency analysis approach, it is not critical to the use of this approach. When the world was new to this subject–when it had just discovered ciphers and keys and cryptanalysis–all of the knowledge was completely new. It was the cutting edge, so not many people understood it yet. It was essential to attain a high level of education to comprehend the mysteries of cryptology. However, with the modern education system, and modern technology, people have the information necessary more readily available. People can access the “mathematics, statistics, and linguistics” necessary to equip themselves for code making and codebreaking. Also, the easy access means that the information surrounds the human population. We have billions of pieces of data sitting at our fingertips, just waiting in that ever-present “cloud.” Because of this access, and as a result of the heightened academic expectations, “amateur” cryptanalysts can use previously lengthy and difficult methods of analysis with much more ease. The civilization has reached a “sufficiently sophisticated level of scholarship in several disciplines,” and therefore the people of that civilization may achieve the same accomplishments which the Islamic civilization discovered. However, as a result of the constant inundation of information prevalent in our society, and the resultant size of the body of common knowledge, amateur cryptanalysts can now use approaches such as frequency analysis, which was so arduously sought out, without any formal training.

Old News with a New Twist

The continuous development of the human mind and collective knowledge makes it ever more difficult to protect those thoughts and ideas we wish to keep to ourselves. The idea of privacy might seem distant or even unattainable to us today due to the prevalence of modern technologies and new advances in communication. The more information that there is out there, the more people that are trying to find it (and the more bits of information that may slip out).

They key component to understanding the evolution of cryptoanalysis is realizing that we have quite the advantage now. The fact that we know about the wax-coated balls of silk bearing Chinese messages and egg shells with hidden writing shows that we have learned from past attempts and successes of encryption and learned from them (Singh, 5).  It is always more difficult to come with a new way to go about something rather than just adapting a previous process. It took many scholars many years of training in order to figure out how to crack the codes that probably took up just as long to create in the first place.

Humans are natural-born problem solvers and as such our brains are wired to look for order. It may have required “a sufficiently sophisticated level of scholarship” to first create and crack these ciphers, but living in a society in which training in linguistics and mathematics is readily accessible gives us the same advantage that the Islamic empire had (without the years of specialized training). We have learned from the trials and errors of cryptographers long ago and will continue to develop new means of encrypting and decoding messages.

Understanding: From Past to Present

It is no surprise that cryptography and cryptanalysis require at least a basic, and in most cases an elevated, understanding of mathematics, statistics, and linguistics. Back in the time before cryptography had been developed, such understanding was minimal if anything, and hence it is no surprise that cryptography was as well. As time passed, scholars in these civilizations began to unlock the secrets of cryptanalysis, but it was not until the civilization as a whole had grasped these concepts of math, statistics, and linguistics that cryptanalysis could be really put to good use.

Ever since then, all advanced civilizations have emerged with these basic understandings that we take for granted. Unlike in the time when cryptanalysis was first appearing, the average citizen in most of the modern world can read, can do simple math, and has a basic understanding of statistics. These are the minimal skills required to understand cryptography, and thus it is no surprise that even an amateur of today’s world can understand and work with the advanced cryptography that existed back in the earliest civilizations. As we have seen, college students can easily grasp basic substitution ciphers with relative ease, and these basics do not even require the understanding of math and statistics – purely an understanding of linguistics at its most basic form. Thus, the application of frequency analysis seems like an obvious and easy step for a young cryptologist in today’s world, whereas when it was first invented, it seemed like a break through that would (and did) change how man viewed cryptography forever.

At the core, an amateur today is as good as a skilled cryptologist hundreds of years ago because today’s civilization has a minimum understanding that surpasses the understanding of older civilizations by huge strides. We all have a better understanding of the skills required, which allows us to grasp the advanced methods significantly quicker and at a younger age than was ever imaginable. It is no surprise that a highly advanced method of the past is a commonly used technique today when you consider the differences in understanding between the past and the present.

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