The History and Mathematics of Codes and Code Breaking

Tag: telegraph

Necessity is the Mother of Invention

The invention of the telegraph revolutionized long-distance communication by allowing messages to travel many miles practically instantaneously. However, the drawback of telegraphs compared to letters was that the required intermediaries for transmission also had access to the contents of a message. While a postman is unlikely to open and read a sealed letter, a telegraph clerk has no choice but to read what they are sending.

This affected the development of cryptographic techniques in two major ways. One, it prompted the general public to become more interested in cryptography. Even if their messages were not necessarily “secret” per se, most people are uncomfortable with the idea of a half-dozen people reading their private correspondences. Two, individuals and organizations that already encrypted their messages needed to amp up their security, because their messages would be viewed by more people and their messages would be easier to intercept via wire tapping. This spurred the adoption of the Vigenère cipher for telegraph communications because of the increased security it provided.

Similarly, in recent times, the concept of encryption has become more popular and the technique has become more refined in response to the increase in digital communications. As new technologies emerge, so may new cryptographic techniques.

Is Communication Ever Secure?

Before the telegraph was invented and introduced to society, the only way of sending messages was through written means. If you wanted to send a message to a receiver that lived far away, you needed a middleman – someone to transport the message. The telegraph effectively removed the worry that your message would be intercepted or stolen along the way. Although you knew that the message was being sent to the correct machine, however, you didn’t know that it was reaching its intended receiver in its correct form.  You had to trust that the telegraph operator would be honest and secretive in translating/delivering the message. There was essentially no way of confirming that the correct person was at the other end of the receiver. Additionally, some people wanted to send messages that they were uncomfortable with others reading at all. This led to the encryption of messages even before being given to the operator. The desire to keep messages secret from the sender and protect the message in case it didn’t reach its intended receiver have motivated the use of a more secure cipher, the Vignère cipher. This cipher, more complicated than the monoalphabetic cipher, remained the standard for many years. 

After the telegraph, the telephone was invented. At first, though, the telephone still didn’t allow for direct, secure communication. There were telephone operators that would connect calls, and they could potentially listen in on calls without the either line knowing. However, calls became more secure with the invention of the rotary dial. And now, we communicate through talk, text, or email, typically through our smartphones. Nowadays, most people communicate primarily through text or email, not over the phone. Our communications are surely much more secure now than they were years, even decades ago, but I worry that our messages are never truly secure. There are always ways that companies, hackers, or the government can access anything that travels via the web. The only form of truly secure communication is face-to-face. 

Telegraph and Modern Day Technology on Cryptography

I believe the advent of the telegraph motivated the use of more secure cipher due to three reasons. Firstly, telegraph workers were gaining access to all messages being communicated through telegraph. While they were “sworn to secrecy”, people might still seek ways to encrypt their messages from the eyes of telegraph workers. Secondly, communication was becoming more convenient and efficient, which could simultaneously increase the number of messages being sent every day. With such a drastic increase in quantity of communication came an increase in communicators. As more people became involved, they naturally sought to encrypt their messages from others. Last but not least, it became easier to intercept a message compared to utilizing the “Chambers” in previous times. Spies without such resource could tap into a telegraph line and obtain information. Thus, more encryption was in demand.

Modern day technologies have certainly changed the way we communicate. We have grown used to expecting instant responses and having quick conversations. We are accustomed to having some information transparent – for instance our own posts on social media as well as those of others. We are familiar with the accessibility of information and resources online and the convenience of the search engine.

Those modern technologies certainly have implications on secrecy and privacy. Private conversations are essentially computer codes routed through our phone companies or social media platforms. We are willing to reveal more and more personal information online – from date of birth to credit card numbers. We are utilizing vast encryption without knowing how they work or who designed them. This fairly protects the security of our messages but also renders us vulnerable of them being leaked. On the other hand, the public – especially the younger generation – has shown a clear affection towards secrecy. The success of Snapchat largely depends on its function to delete after view.

Necessity is the Mother of Public Use

Necessity is the mother of invention. It wasn’t until the late 19th century that cryptography began to amass a large public following. According to Singh, it was the invention of the telegraph that made the use of ciphers common in the general public. Since telegraph operators had to read a message to send it, those who wished to send more sensitive or private messages had to figure out ways to maintain maintain their privacy. As Singh puts it, “The telegraph operators had access to every message, and hence the risk that one might bribe an operator in order to gain access to a rival’s communications” (Singh, 61). In order to protect their messages, many people began using simple monoalphabetic ciphers to encrypt their messages before sending them. This was more expensive and more time consuming, but the messages were unintelligible to your average nosy telegraph operator.

The public only became interested in ciphers once they had a reason to; they needed to keep their information private. It is much easier to trust that a letter in a sealed envelope will make it to its intended recipient unread than a message sent through another person, although, as seen with Mary Queen of Scots, this is not always the case. Once ciphers became known to the general public, however, they quickly gained popularity. They were not only useful, but also a fun diversion. Victorian lovers used ciphers to send each other notes in the newspaper, the Times was tricked into printing an unflattering encrypted comment about itself, and Edgar Allen Poe wrote a short story centered around cryptography, The Gold Bug. Ciphers, albeit fairly simplistic ciphers, were suddenly everywhere. This is why today even schoolchildren will come up with monoalphabetic ciphers like those that had once stumped the cryptanalysts of the world. Ciphers have become a deeply engrained part of our culture.

That being said, there is less of an interest in ciphers among the general public of today. While we still romanticize ciphers and codes in movies, books, and other media, we don’t have the practical crypto graphical skills that we once did. Phones and email have removed the middle man, the operator, from the equation; it appears that there is no need to encrypt our messages anymore. While there is still an interest in cryptography, few people ever go beyond the simple mono-alphabetic or shift ciphers from their schoolyard days.

Technologies Effect on Cryptography

The advent of the telegraph was a major factor in the use of the Vigenère Cipher. Due to the Vigenère Cipher having 60 cipher alphabets, the methods of encrypted methods not only increased but became ideal for technology such as the telegraph.  What makes the telegraph go well with the Vigenère cipher is that it brought more security to the encoded message. It did this by eliminating the people who are knowledgeable about the message. An example of this is two people wanting to send a message to eachother via morse code. To do this they would have to have two middle men who were trained to use the telegraph send the message. Without the Vigenère cipher, those two middle men would be aware of the message thus exposing the information. Cellphones have changed the way we communicate greatly, especially in terms of making a transaction or giving away credit cart information. Personally, though I know it might be safer but is still at risk, when I exchange credit card information with my family, I do it over the phone rather than text. Cellphones have a major effect on secrecy in society today. Many people have codes on their phones and every ones’ phone is encoded in some type of way. Implications arise when or if someone is able to break the basic encryption for a chain device such as the iPhone. If this happened then everyone with an iPhone will be at risk of a security breach.

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