Cryptography

The History and Mathematics of Codes and Code Breaking

Tag: Encryption

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.

The Failure of Trust Itself

As I was reading Little Brother, I was intrigued by the points that Cory Doctorow made. Some of his arguments were interesting since Marcus was purely intent that the DHS was terrible. It seemed that the US would turn into chaos from the inside out because of another terrorist attack. We do not actually see the adult side. Without Marcus, the tactics the DHS was using to track down terrorists would have definitely been more efficient. The jailing teenagers’ part was a little extreme, but the other tactics such as following unusual routes could prove to be useful in tracking drug deals and even potential terrorist attacks.

That is not what intrigued me the most. The most interesting part of the book for me came at the beginning of chapter 10. This is where I finally understood how public/private key encryption works. We mentioned it a few times in class, but the beginning of chapter 10 explains the logistics of it. Using only public key encryption is useless because it is not a secret. Anyone on the web will be able to read the messages you encrypt. However, using both a public and private key is a very secure means of communication. The message is encrypted twice, both with a public key and a private key. There is still a very sneaky way of bypassing this. Billy could trick Bob, who is trying to send a message to Jim, into thinking that Billy’s public key is actually Bob’s public key. In this way, Billy can intercept Jim’s messages and become a man in the middle. In order to actually maintain secrecy, one must establish a web of trusts. But even this web of trusts can be infiltrated, as evidenced by the events later in the novel. That is the inherent flaw in the private/public key encryption. It involves around human trust, which can be easily betrayed by anything from money to power. Human trust is what fails here in the situation provided in Cory Doctorow's novel.

Using a VPN to Protect Privacy

One thing college students can do to protect their online privacy would be to use a VPN (Virtual Private Network). In short, a VPN encrypts a users’ data so third parties are unable to view it. They are particularly useful while using public networks such as a Starbucks Wi-Fi because any individual with enough knowledge and malicious intent can view your data while you both are connected to the network. There was even a time when any person with a Firefox add-on called “firesheep” could log into your Facebook account as long as you were on the same network. Even Starbucks and AT&T recommended using a VPN: “If you have a VPN, AT&T recommends that you connect through it for optimum security” (found in their Terms and Conditions).

If you are unable to afford the monthly cost of a VPN, there are many free Internet based proxies available for casual Internet browsing. You can even use programs such as TOR, which passes your Internet traffic through at least three different servers (normal internet proxies only pass through one) and allows anonymous browsing of the Internet. If anonymity is the objective, some VPN providers allow you to pay with gift cards or Bitcoins so no identifying information is given. VPNs have many uses, but most importantly they protect your data while using public networks. If you are worried about protecting your privacy while browsing the Internet, a VPN is one of the best tools you can use to do so.

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