200-year old Presidential Cipher Broken

Photo courtesy of
‘rosetta pillar’
courtesy of ‘philliefan99′

Secure Communication has long been a pillar of diplomatic and internal communications. You want to make sure that only your intended recipients can read and understand your messages, not some man in the middle who’s particularly clever. In the days before digital computers, working with solid encryption meant a lot of mathematics by hand, using agreed upon methodology for encoding and decoding the message. If your method was solid enough, it would be pretty much improbable for anyone to decode it. So thought President Jefferson and his mathematician friend, Dr. Robert Patterson. Together, they devised a code so secure that it was given to the State Department to encrypt diplomatic communications. It remained uncracked for 200 years, when Dr. Lawren Smithline cracked Jefferson’s secret code.

Working for a few years using modern cryptographic techniques, Dr. Smithline was able to crack the sample of Jefferson’s code given to him by Dr. Patterson. What was in the message? Those words we’ll all think of come Saturday: “In Congress, July Fourth, one thousand seven hundred and seventy six. A declaration by the Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled. When in the course of human events…”

Now, if you’ll excuse me, it’s time to go re-read Stephen Levy’s Crypto

I live and work in the District of Columbia. I write at We Love DC, a blog I helped start, I work at Technolutionary, a company I helped start, and I’m happy doing both. I enjoy watching baseball, cooking, and gardening. I grow a mean pepper, keep a clean scorebook, and wash the dishes when I’m done. Read Why I Love DC.

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