Video Script

In this module, we’re going to take a look at one of the most important applications of computer science and modern technology- the field of cryptography. Cryptography is the study of ways to communicate securely and privately in the presence of third parties. If you think about it, cryptography is very important today with the rise of the Internet and modern technology. Any data that’s transmitted over the internet can be intercepted by just about anyone from your internet service provider all the way to the website that you’re communicating with, and anybody in between. Remember, the internet is built upon open standards, and so anybody can understand the packet formats and deconstruct them very quickly. So we need a way that we can encrypt and secure the data inside of those packets. So they can only be opened by the intended recipients, and that’s where the field of cryptography comes in. There were lots of historical Computer Science professionals interested in cryptography. Charles Babbage was very fascinated by it. Alan Turing was especially involved in cryptography, and Claude Shannon, were all involved in the field of cryptography. Also, surprisingly, the author Edgar Allan Poe was one of the people that was really excited about cryptography outside of computer scientists, and in fact, helped popularize cryptography as a word game that you might see in your newspaper.

So let’s take a look at an example of what cryptography might look like. When I used to teach this in a classroom, I would usually start by having strips of paper with this particular message printed out and laid all over the tables, and I would encourage students to see if they could decrypt this particular message. So on the slide here, you see the same text that I have written on the strip of paper, but it can be kind of hard to decrypt this message. So take a look at it and see if you can come up with what this message should say. I’ll give you a hint. If you have a marker nearby, or something that’s about this big and round kind of dowel shaped, that might help. Still need a hint? Well, what happens if I take this piece of paper, and I wrap it around the marker like so. Take it and wrap it. Just like that. So now I’ve taken this message, and I’ve wrapped it around the marker. And you’ll notice that when you do this, the text kind of starts to line up, you can see that there are characters that start to line up. That’s what this is. This message is actually an example of one of the earliest forms of cryptography called a Scytale. A Scytale was round dowel rod, kind of like this marker that you could use to encrypt and send messages. And it was used all the way back in ancient Roman and Greek times. For example, if you wanted to send a message to somebody, you could take a strip of leather and wrap it around the Scytale, and then you would impress the characters of the message across the strip of leather on the Scytale. Then you would unwrap it, and you’d end up with a string of random characters that look something like this on the paper, and you could send that piece of leather out into the field. And of course, the only way to decrypt it would be to know how to decrypt it, and to have a Scytale that was the same size as the one that was used to encode that message. And so if you were very careful, you can use Scytale of different sizes to encode different messages using the same technique. So if we start with this message in the class, you realize that a Scytale is really just an iterative cipher, where we start with about every six letters. So we have this is a Scytale example. That’s what that message would say. Now, of course, you’ll notice I’ve added the letter Q in there a couple of times. And that’s actually very commonly done in the field of cryptography. As long as the message is understandable to the person receiving it when they decrypt it, you can add some random characters in there that don’t make any sense once you have decrypted the message, but it can really help foul up people trying to decrypt the message and use every single character in the message. It’s a neat little trick to make your encryption just that much more unbreakable.

There are lots of examples of early ciphers that have been used throughout history, we looked at one called the Scytale. There are also things such as substitution ciphers. A substitution cipher is where you take the letters in your text and you simply replace them one for the other. For example, all B’s become Q’s. All K’s become G’s, and so on and so forth. If you read the newspaper or do puzzle books, you might have seen a puzzle called a crypto quip. That is actually an example of a substitution cipher, and it’s one that was made popular by Edgar Allan Poe. Of course, putting your crypto equipment in newspaper might lead you to think that it’s easily breakable, and it totally is. One of the best ways that you can break things that are substitution ciphers is by frequency analysis. You look for the most frequent characters, and then you assume that those would be probably the most frequent characters in the English language. For example, in English were helped out a lot by the game show Wheel of Fortune. We know that the letters R S T L N E are some of the most frequently used characters in the English language. So if we find the most frequent substituted letters in our substitution cipher, we can try those characters and see what works. Also things such as short words, two letter words, things like that really helped break a crypto crypt very, very easily.

So then you get to more advanced ciphers called polyalphabetic ciphers. And these are like substitution ciphers, but much, much more advanced. For example, you would substitute letters not only based on the previous letter, but the position and all sorts of other things. Polyalphabetic ciphers were first described all the way back in the ninth century AD by the Islamic mathematician al-Kindi, but they were later explained in a lot more detail by French mathematician Leon Battista Alberti in 1467. So of course, once again, polyalphabetic ciphers can seem very complicated. But once you really discover how many different substitution ciphers there are in a polyalphabetic cipher, then it reduces the problem to simply breaking each of those individual substitution ciphers one at a time. So while they’re still powerful, they’re not nearly unbreakable, like we might think today.

Another example of an early cipher would be the tabula recta. A tabula recta, like you see here is all of the letters of the alphabet are arranged in a grid. And you can see that each grid shifts by one letter. Then with a table such as this, there are a lot of different algorithms you can use to encrypt data. For example, you could use the previous letter in the data to encrypt the next letter that you want to encrypt. So if we want to encrypt the word HELLO, we would start by using H to encrypt H. So we get H, but then the next letter E would be encrypted using the H line and it becomes L, then we use the next L to encrypt L. So we would encrypt L, which would be W, then we use W to encrypt another L, which becomes H. And then we use H to encrypt O, which becomes V. And so by following that process through, we can use the tabula recta to create a very, very hard to break cipher just by following an algorithm. And of course, you can do all sorts of different things with this and it creates a pretty powerful cipher, not one that is completely undecipherable. But it’s a very powerful way to do something using a very simple table such as this. And this is actually the same basis of things like the decoder rings that you might have heard about that were sold in cereal boxes years ago, they use the same basic idea. If you have the table or the decoder ring or whatever the ciphers key is, then it becomes very easy to break but without the key, you have to discover the key in order to break it easily.