The first chapter of Simon Singh’s The Code Book introduces the historical roots of secret writing. Steganography, the practice of hiding the existence of messages, dates as far back as to the Greco-Persian Wars in the fifth century B.C. The practice of cryptography was a novel and unchartered concept for the early Greek, Roman and Chinese civilizations. Over the centuries, military conflicts and the increasing demand for national security begged for the obscuring the meaning of messages. Without knowledge of the key, encrypted messages were effectively indiscernible until the Arab development of cryptanalysis in the first century A.D. During a millennia in which literacy was a luxury of only the aristocracy, only the finest minds were tasked with the creation and cracking of codes.
Modern cryptography, however, takes on a much different form. The current state of science and technology is infinitely more advanced than it was in medieval times, and the invention of the internet has made information vastly more accessible. Amateur cryptanalysts today are capable of employing frequency analysis without having been previously exposed to it because they have knowledge of computing and problem solving unpossessed by the early world’s most brilliant minds. Exposure to modern technology, from encryption used by computers to the teachings of a high school algebra curriculum, means that the codebreakers of today are far more equipped to solve simple codes than their predecessors.
Singh wrote that “Cryptanalysis could not be invented until a civilization had reached a sufficiently sophisticated level of scholarship in several disciplines, including mathematics, statistics, and linguistics.” Ergo, the brightest minds of the early Arabs, in their invention of the practice, proved themselves to have mastered these pillars of scholarship. Each subsequent civilization has had the opportunity to employ and build upon this knowledge; now, almost two thousand years later, even the amateur cryptanalyst is capable of this once ingenious method, which then begs the question, where else will we go from here?