Secretary of State and as a Virginia delegate to the Continental Congress, James Madison used many codes and ciphers in his correspondence with Thomas Jefferson.
Although father of American Cryptography title goes to James Lovell, Leon Battista Alberti is was known as “The Father of Western Cryptology” in part because of his development of polyalphabetic substitution.
The Arabs were the first to make significant advances in cryptanalysis. An Arabic author, Qalqashandi, wrote down a technique for solving ciphers which is still used today.
Cryptography’s origin goes back to around 2000 B.C. in Egypt, where hieroglyphics were used to decorate the tombs of deceased rulers and kings. These hieroglyphics told the story of the life of the king and proclaimed the great acts of his life. They were purposefully cryptic to look more majestic and imperative.
During the Middle Ages, cryptography believe started to progress. The first major advances in cryptography were made in Italy, Venice in 1452. They created an elaborate organization with the sole purpose of solving and creating ciphers.
In 1518, by Trithemius, a German monk who had a deep interest in the occult, wrote a series of six books called ‘Polygraphia.’ In the fifth book, devised a table that repeated the alphabet with each row a duplicate of the one above it, shifted over one letter.
Giovan Batista Belaso, in 1553 extended this technique by choosing a keyword that is written above the plaintext, in a letter to letter correspondence.
Blaise de Vigenere, the most famous cryptographer of the 16th century (1523-1596) in 1585, he wrote ‘Tracte des Chiffres’ in which he used a Trithemius table, but changed the way the key system worked. One of his techniques used the plaintext as its own key. Another used the ciphertext. The manner in which these keys are used is known as key scheduling, and is an integral part of the “Data Encryption Standard” (DES)
In 1628, a Frenchman named Antoine Rossignol helped his army defeat the Huguenots by decoding a captured message. When Rossignol died in 1682, his son, and later his grandson, continued his work. With many cryptographers employed by the French government, together, they formed the “Cabinet Noir” (the “Black Chamber”).
By the 1700’s, “Black Chambers” were common in Europe. The most prominent one in Vienna. It was called ‘The Geheime Kabinets-Kanzlei’ and was directed by Baron Ignaz de Koch between 1749 and 1763. This organization read through all the mail coming to foreign embassies, copied the letters, resealed them, and returned them to the post-office the same morning. The same office also handled all other political or military interceptions, and sometimes read as many as 100 letters a day.
The English Black Chamber was formed by John Wallis in 1701. After his death his grandson William Blencowe, took the title of Decipherer.
In 1775, a letter intercepted from Dr. Benjamin Church was suspected to be a coded message to the British, yet the American revolutionaries could not decipher it. Their problem was solved by Elbridge Gerry.
When former Vice-President Aaron Burr and his assistant General James Wilkinson were exploring the Southwest for possible colonization at the expense of Spain, there was some confusion, as to the ownership of Colony. Does it belong to United States or Burr. And found out through Spanish agent Wilkinson who took the letter to Britain that Burr’s intention was to build his own.
This letter fell into the hands of President Thomas Jefferson. Burr was tried and acquitted, but his name was tainted forever. The ‘wheel cipher’ was invented by Thomas Jefferson around 1795, and although he never did very much with it, a very similar system was used by the US navy.
During the Civil War (1861-1865), ciphers were not very complex.
In 1883, Auguste Kerckhoffs wrote ‘La Cryptographie Militaire’ in which he set forth six basic requirements of cryptography.
1. ciphertext should be unbreakable in practice
2. the cryptosystem should be convenient for the correspondents
3. the key should be easily remembered and changeable
4. the ciphertext should be transmissible by telegraph
5. the cipher apparatus should be easily portable
6. the cipher machine should be relatively easy to use
The invention of telegraph dramatically changed cryptography in 1844, and the radio changed cryptography in 1895.
In 1929, Lester S. Hill published an article “Cryptography in an Algebraic Alphabet” in “The American Mathematical Monthly”. Each plaintext letter was given a numerical value.
During WW2, the Americans had great success at breaking Japanese codes, while the Japanese, unable to break US codes, assumed that their codes were also unbreakable. Cryptanalysis was used to thwart the Japanese attack on Midway, a decisive battle in the South Pacific.
In 1948, Shannon published “A Communications Theory of Secrecy Systems” Shannon was one of the first modern cryptographers to attribute advanced mathematical techniques to the science of ciphers.
The story of cryptography would be at an end if it weren’t for the practical problem that in order to send a secret message, an equal amount of secret key must first be sent.
For most human (and computer) languages, a key of a given length can only be guaranteed safe for 2-3 times the length of the key. From this analysis, it appears that any system with a finite key is doomed for failure.
Today with the modern digital world we have much more sophisticated cryptography and encryption systems which had evolved through the years of work. If not for the King’s desire to be noble and the governments need for secrecy we would not have found this complex cryptography art. Today it’s more of a mathematical problem and an algorithm.
With the help of many sources I shared this history of cryptography, not only to entertain you with its origins but also to remind you of the importance of data security.
While working with your critical data remind yourself the importance of:
• Backing up Data
• Proper Authorizations in Your Intranet
• Security of Your Data
• Deletion of Data accidental or intentional
• The Continuity of the Company
Do you use any special encryption systems in your Company? Share with us your thoughts.
P.S. My thanks to many sources including LoC, Fred Cohen & Associates, Information Security… Picture credit goes to its original sources.