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Encryption Security United States

200-Year-Old Cipher Finally Cracked 141

Posted by timothy
from the castle-aaaaaaaagh dept.
Attila Dimedici writes "A code expert just cracked a code used by a friend of Thomas Jefferson in a letter written to Jefferson some 200 years ago. This code is fairly easy to crack using a computer, but extremely difficult without one. I think it would have been much harder if the author had not included an indication as to what code algorithm he used in the letter accompanying the coded message."
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200-Year-Old Cipher Finally Cracked

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  • tl;dr (Score:5, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday July 02, 2009 @03:49PM (#28563083)

    The message says:

    "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..."

    • Re:tl;dr (Score:5, Funny)

      by morgan_greywolf (835522) on Thursday July 02, 2009 @04:05PM (#28563381) Homepage Journal

      FTFA:

      After about a week of working on the puzzle, the numerical key to Mr. Patterson's cipher emerged -- 13, 34, 57, 65, 22, 78, 49.

      Hey! That's the combination to my luggage!

      • by hansraj (458504)

        A luggage combination that long? What exactly are you carrying around in your luggage?

        • Another piece of luggage locked with a another secret code. A code far more fiendish and devilish than the last
      • lotto... (Score:2, Funny)

        by Narnie (1349029)

        After about a week of working on the puzzle, the numerical key to Mr. Patterson's cipher emerged -- 13, 34, 57, 65, 22, 78, 49.

        This week's lotto numbers, here I come!!!

        • by 2names (531755)
          I put the numbers into OO Spreadsheet as A1:A7, and applied the following: =((ROUNDDOWN((A1+A2)/A3)+A4-(ROUNDUP((A5*A6)/A7))+A1))

          It's everywhere!
          • Only on Slashdot would you specifiy that it was an OO spreadsheet, not to be confused with evil Excel owned by evil Microsoft ;)
            I love it!
        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          Given that these numbers have just come to light, in the incredible coincidence that they also happen to be this week's winning lottery numbers you'll win less money because you'll have to share your winnings with all the other wrong-headed people who think this increases their likelihood. (I am having strenuously to fight my intuition, which is telling me that they are now *less* likely to come up.)

      • Really? The combination to my luggage is 1 2 3 4 5. http://vids.myspace.com/index.cfm?fuseaction=vids.individual&videoid=49180515 [myspace.com]
      • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

        by V!NCENT (1105021)
        13, 34, 57, 65, 22, 78, 49?! That's what an idiot would have on his luggage!
    • by bitt3n (941736)
      in compliance with the patriot act, the message has now been redacted to read:

      In XXX, July XXX, one thousand seven hundred and seventy XXX. A XXX by the XXX of the United XXX of XXX in XXX assembled.

    • by RDW (41497)

      In a strikingly similar incident, the 43rd president, George W Bush, was apparently challenged while in office with an encrypted text by an unknown correspondent. Though the cipher remains unsolved, there are hints that the plaintext, like Jefferson's Declaration of Independence, encapsulates some of the President's profoundest thoughts. Former President Bush hopes that the science of cryptanalysis may one day advance to the point where future generations will be able to read the message. The full text is g

      • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

        by Anonymous Coward

        Make the pie higher

        I think we all agree, the past is over.
        This is still a dangerous world.
        It's a world of madmen
        And uncertainty
        And potential mental losses.

        Rarely is the question asked
        Is our children learning?
        Will the highways of the internet
        Become more few?
        How many hands have I shaked?

        They misunderestimate me.
        I am a pitbull on the pantleg of opportunity.
        I know that the human being and the fish
        Can coexist.

        Families is where our nation finds hope
        Where our wings take dream.
        Put food on your family!
        Knock down the

      • Re:tl;dr (Score:4, Funny)

        by mobby_6kl (668092) on Thursday July 02, 2009 @06:00PM (#28565131)

        Phnglui mglwnafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgahnagl fhtagn!

      • We'll figure that out the same day as we find the 44th presidents 8 missing states; 7 of which he visited and had one left to go during the campaign.

  • by netsavior (627338) on Thursday July 02, 2009 @03:49PM (#28563089)
    the Voynich [xkcd.com] manuscript [wikipedia.org] is a much more compelling and difficult mystery.
    • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

      by Em Emalb (452530)

      Dude, the Voynich manuscript has been cracked.

      It's a variation of the GNAA first post troll.

      Sorry to burst your bubble.

    • by jd (1658) <imipak AT yahoo DOT com> on Thursday July 02, 2009 @04:21PM (#28563691) Homepage Journal

      Perhaps, but there's no evidence that the Voynich manuscript is a cypher in the traditional sense. A natural language isn't normally "decyphered", since it was never encrypted in the first place.

      Given that there are many hundreds of thousands of natural languages today for which there is no written form, it's entirely possible that this is a script invented for such a language. In WW2, natural native American languages were sometimes used in this way as an "unbreakable cypher" - who's to say that medieval Europeans hadn't done the same thing themselves?

      If that is the case, then it isn't particularly compelling (we know of many extinct languages for which no known writing exists - and hundreds more go extinct yearly), and is not so much "difficult" as useless - the text could never be read.

      The wikipedia article doesn't say anything about using techniques to detect writing that is no longer visible, so I must assume no such techniques have been used.

      (It may be possible to establish some of the content of a missing page if the page after had been underneath at the time of writing. Non-destructive techniques for doing this formed a part of the case against the West Midland's serious crime squad in the 90s, where it could be shown pages of confessions had been altered after being signed. However, if no such analysis has taken place, the presence of such data is unknown.)

      Regardless, there are many missing pages. From the articles, the page numbers seem to be relatively new compared to the text, so we don't know how many pages are actually missing, we only know how many went missing since being numbered. This makes understanding the text very difficult and even if the text could be translated, there's no guarantee we could even read it or understand it without those pages.

      We know vastly more about Linear A than we do about the script on the Voynich manuscript, including the archaeology of the people writing Linear A, yet after all this time we've got no further than knowing the number system and a few of the numbers in it.

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by VeNoM0619 (1058216)
        Agreed, if someone handed us a (random) book written in Japanese (take your pick which writing style), do you think we could "decipher" it without knowledge of the Japanese language? The half backward sentence structure, the combinations of syllables into letters. Right to left, even bottom to top. Each word being spelled entirely different than our English word. Words having multiple meanings, and when combined with other words having even more unrelated meanings.

        It is more likely that the Voynich was wr
        • Possibly. It depends on the context in which the text is found. But it certainly wouldn't be easy without some clues to the nature of the grammar involved. Hieroglyphics were only figured out because of the Rosetta stone, while most of cuneiform is still incomprehensible.

          • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

            by glwtta (532858)
            Hieroglyphs, dammit; 'hieroglyphic' is an adjective.
            • by mattack2 (1165421)

              While your suggestion is the #1 entry, the #2 entry is the one people actually use, and it is listed a a noun.

              from m-w.com:
              Main Entry: 2hieroglyphic
              Function:
              noun
              Date:
              1586
              1: hieroglyph
              2: a system of hieroglyphic writing ; specifically : the picture script of the ancient Egyptian priesthood --often used in plural but singular or plural in construction
              3: something that resembles a hieroglyph especially in difficulty of decipherment

              (Wow, I was going to pick on 'dammit', and at least dictionary.com lists it.)

        • by Yvanhoe (564877) on Thursday July 02, 2009 @05:53PM (#28565037) Journal
          Many words in one of the syllabic alphabet (katakana) have a pronunciation close to english, as they are foreign words phonetically transcribed in Japanese, like ko-n-pu-ta (computer)
          Even without that, it is easy to tell apart the complex ideograms and the syllabic characters, if only because of their frequency of appearance. There are some structures easy to spot : polite forms and declarative sentences end frquently by the same words, etc... There are many structures that are easy to spot. I suspect it is the case in any language. The Voynich doesn't appear to obey to any grammar structure. Such a problem ought to be easy : there is a whole book, presumably about plants, and we don't even manage to find a single common word in all these pages that could possibly mean "plant" ? Or "root" ? Or a single sentence structure common to many places ? My bet is on "nonsense written by someone who wished he could write and had an instability making him believe he could"
        • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

          by jd (1658)

          I quite agree. And Japanese isn't even the worst. There is a writing style where you alternatively write right-to-left then left-to-right. The dead language of Easter Island, Rongo-Rongo, goes one worse and even requires you to turn the page upside-down on alternate lines. (That's the ONLY thing anyone can understand of it.)

          The Wikipedia article states that some words are repeated three times, which strongly suggests that words can be modified not only by other words but by groups of other words. Quite a nu

      • by netsavior (627338) on Thursday July 02, 2009 @04:55PM (#28564187)
        First of all, The Voynich is only 500 years old(give or take), from a time when books were not uncommon, and was very very likely written in Europe, hardly pre-historic. This would be a person in Europe, with contemporary writing, art, and binding supplies, writing in a dead language not otherwise documented anywhere else. Linear A is like FOUR THOUSAND years dead... not really comperable.

        That is what makes it so compelling, the fact that it happened, not in a vaccum like the Aboriginal Amazon, not in ancient history like Linear A, not in Stone, or papyrus, or etched on tree bark, but that it happened inside of western society, using "modern methods" (for the day), and it is a language/code that can be verified as not being junk, but that nobody had seen before or since.
        • by jd (1658)

          Like I said, the UN is showing the number of endangered languages today to number in the hundreds of thousands. One can only imagine what the number was like 500 years ago, when empires routinely extinguished native languages.

          Linear A is indeed much, much older but we have the advantage of having many thousands of texts, the context, a better concordance and greater trust in the contents not having been altered.

          We know that the page numbers and some of the images are newer than the actual text, so we know t

      • by Yvanhoe (564877)
        The other option is that it Voynich manuscript is nonsense. It could very well be the work of an insane illetrate man (or woman) who wanted to write a book and did.
        • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

          by Darkness404 (1287218)
          But it still has lots of patterns that every language known has. Anyone can take a bunch of scribblings down and make it "seem" like a language, but the Voynich manuscript is unique that every part of it seems to be a language, not the work of someone insane.
        • by jd (1658)

          That is entirely possible, except that the frequency of character groupings and word groupings seem to match up with real-world natural languages.

          Of course, we know from J.R.R. Tolkien's work on Elvish that it's possible to create a "natural language" that fits perfectly with known patterns and yet has no existence in the real world outside of its creation.

          This would allow the script to both be nonsense and yet appear coherent to the sort of basic analysis that has been possible. It could even be done by so

          • by Yvanhoe (564877)
            Do you have a source about word groupings ? The wikipedia is weak on this one and seems to suggest that only characters frequency (and groups of two or three characters) have interesting characteristics...
            • by netsavior (627338)
              if you are interested, Yale (who currently owns the manuscript I believe) has high res images, and more information: Here [yale.edu] Hey, it is a very poorly laid out website, but it is Yale not Wiki, so there is that :P
        • by Meumeu (848638)

          The other option is that it Voynich manuscript is nonsense. It could very well be the work of an insane illetrate man (or woman) who wanted to write a book and did.

          Now that's ironic...

          • by Yvanhoe (564877)
            Children sometimes do that : in order to mimick adults, they "write" lines and pretend it means something. "What's that dear ? A dotted line ?" "That means 'I love you !' "
      • Perhaps, but there's no evidence that the Voynich manuscript is a cypher in the traditional sense. A natural language isn't normally "decyphered", since it was never encrypted in the first place.

        I ran the Voynich text through a strange old Apple ][ assembler program an old friend once wrote. The results don't make sense to me, either. It starts:

        "Es Brillig war. Die schlichte toven warten und wimmelten in Waben. Alle mumsige war die Borgegoven, und die Momeraths ausgraben."

      • by glwtta (532858)
        Perhaps, but there's no evidence that the Voynich manuscript is a cypher in the traditional sense. A natural language isn't normally "decyphered", since it was never encrypted in the first place.

        Not true. All of the analysis so far suggests that the Voynich is not plaintext (from what I remember the ridiculously low entropy is one of the primary indicators). People like the whole "phonetic alphabet for [insert your favorite obscure Asian language]" idea because it sounds cool, but there is no evidence f
        • by jd (1658)

          The thing is, we know Linear A was indeed in Minoan Crete and we know a fair bit about Minoan Crete. Although we know a lot about 16th century Europe as a whole, it could be absolutely anywhere in Europe and the amount that is common across the whole of Europe back then was exceedingly small.

      • by AhtirTano (638534)
        Actually, natural native languages were not used as unbreakable cyphers. That's a myth. The code-talkers were trained to do this, and devised a code based on their language. (And actually, the program started in WWI and was so successful they revived it for WWII.) The Japanese figured out that Navajo was being used, and searched out Navajo speakers among POWs to translate. But because the code-talkers actually encoded their message during the translation into Navajo, even these POWs were unable to figure ou
      • by VShael (62735)

        "it's entirely possible that this is a script invented for such a language."

        Possible, but highly unlikely.

        One of the cool things about the manuscript is not just the script that the text is written in. It's the fact that the diagrams show both plants, and constellations, which are not known on earth.

        It could be a religious text (with someone describing what their idea of the next world is like) or it could be an elaborate fiction, like some proto D&D manual. Or it could just be a hoax of some sort. But

        • by jd (1658)

          Lord Baden-Powell, founder of the boy scout movement, was a spy for the British Army. He encoded maps of enemy encampments as decorations on butterfly wings. Were those maps found 500 years from now with no context, they'd appear to be insects which are not known on Earth.

          I'm not saying this is the case here, merely that we can't trust what we assume we know merely because the assumption looks like it might be right. If it didn't look right, it wouldn't be assumed. It doesn't make the assumption reliable.

          An

  • just cracked?? (Score:5, Informative)

    by macxcool (1370409) on Thursday July 02, 2009 @03:55PM (#28563203)

    A code expert just cracked a code

    The article says "After unlocking its hidden message in 2007". This is hardly 'just'. The solution was more recently published though. Interesting article.

  • by wjousts (1529427) on Thursday July 02, 2009 @03:57PM (#28563241)
    "Hey Jefferson, you might want to try keeping it in your pants. I saw that slave girl today and she's starting to show. People will start asking questions."
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      Going by the fact that you got modded "troll" rather than "funny" I'd say that somebody is clinging to the American history they learned in elementary school a little too hard...
      • by rubycodez (864176)

        really, I has born in the early 60s and mention was made in public school before 7th grade Jefferson fathered children by his enslaved women.

        • by TheLink (130905)
          > I has born in the early 60s

          O RLY?

          I can has you born in the early 80s or 90s. :)
          • by qc_dk (734452)

            I think the two posters above are pretty cool guys. Teyh don't use grammar and doesn't afraid of anything.

    • by dkleinsc (563838)

      Here I was expecting the message to read

      "We apologize for the inconvenience."

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by ChrisMaple (607946)
      The DNA evidence for this claim is inconclusive because it does not eliminate other members of Jefferson's family. In particular, one close relative had a poor reputation, and is a likely candidate for this misbehaviour.
      • by AhtirTano (638534)
        Except that many people came to the conclusion that he was the father before the DNA evidence, based on where he was and how he behaved around the time of the birth, the way he treated that slave family relative to others, and so forth. The DNA evidence was just the icing on the cake.
  • "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..." Why even bother writing a code to tell someone that?
    • by 0racle (667029) on Thursday July 02, 2009 @04:17PM (#28563615)
      Most likely for the reason that was presented at the end of the article, it was for a bit of fun. It was meant to be an exercise in cryptography, by enciphering something Jefferson knew, he would know when (if) he deciphered it correctly.
      • The article said he took some liberties. I'm rather interested to know if those were in any way interesting.

        Anyone have a copy of the actual paper?

      • by pbhj (607776)

        Perhaps it's hiding a stegonagraphic code - perhaps "pwned!"?

        Or was that: "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..." the entire plaintext? (that would make it a more awesome achievement as it's very short).

        What's the relevance of the excision of "General" from Jefferson's original.

    • Re: (Score:1, Funny)

      by Anonymous Coward

      I know, I was expecting something profound like "drink more ovaltine please".

    • Because he wasn't passing on a secret message, he was merely demonstrating his cipher.
      If you'd read the article you'd know that.
  • All your base are belong to us!
  • by rev_sanchez (691443) on Thursday July 02, 2009 @04:24PM (#28563737)
    The message was: "Be sure to drink your Ovaltine."
    • by inviolet (797804)

      Here, I'll save you a mouseclick and entirely too much reading to find the plaintext.

      The actual plaintext was the text of the declaration of independence. The cryptologist who wrote the letter was just showing off his new cipher.

  • It wasn't nearly as strong as the author thought, but was still strong enough to resist cryptographers for a long time. That's impressive.

    I wonder, though. There's a certain level of indirectness and jitter in the system used, but not enough to raise the complexity even to the single millions, let alone the millions of millions. Would it be possible to increase the strength of the system and still have it memorizable and usable by any person in the field without book, computer or other aid?

  • Even if the key to this exact code wasn't known, you'd think that all of the types of codes in use at that time would have been known and only a lack of interest kept this one from being cracked much earlier.
  • by 93 Escort Wagon (326346) on Thursday July 02, 2009 @05:13PM (#28564459)

    ... it's not going to do much good for President Jefferson at this point.

  • by houghi (78078) on Thursday July 02, 2009 @05:27PM (#28564643)

    ... but they had to wait for the copyright to expire.

  • He used a computer (Score:2, Interesting)

    by tkioz (1586393)
    He used a computer, he cheated. If he really wanted to work out it as a test of skill he should of used only tools people in that time had.
  • The message read: Just abolished the slave trade. With any luck, we'll soon have a black president...
  • Zodiac Killer 360 (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Korey Kaczor (1345661) on Thursday July 02, 2009 @05:44PM (#28564901)

    The elusive Zodiac Killer's 360 character cipher was never cracked, either, and it's been decades since he mailed it to newspapers. That cipher also seems a bit grid-like, with spacing made deliberately in rows. I wonder if this method would help, at least in part, in cracking it?

    If anything, would be nice to see something come up to ascertain his identity, and if alive, put him behind bars.

  • by tyrione (134248) on Thursday July 02, 2009 @07:09PM (#28565873) Homepage
    He wrote the entire draft. The only parts that changed were minute portions and the choice of language he used was replaced by less forceful language for fear of being too alienating to the common man. The WSJ cites him as a contributor. The author needs to read Jefferson's letters. It's right in there. I suppose Stephen King or any other author should be called a contributor to their work after an Editor comes in and helps modify it.
    • The only parts that changed were minute portions and the choice of language he used was replaced by less forceful language for fear of being too alienating to the common man.

      If only it were. Jefferson condemns slavery, in his draft, for one. The omission of a prohibition on slavery from the Country's final documents was one he warned would be paid for in blood. And it was, terribly.

      • by tyrione (134248)

        The only parts that changed were minute portions and the choice of language he used was replaced by less forceful language for fear of being too alienating to the common man.

        If only it were. Jefferson condemns slavery, in his draft, for one. The omission of a prohibition on slavery from the Country's final documents was one he warned would be paid for in blood. And it was, terribly.

        Very true, but I was referring to the rightful and just angst against Christianity that was mellowed. The slavery was not only axed but a deal breaker, so he being a diplomat compromised for the greater benefit of the revolution and made it clear his positions for history to research and restore.

  • Not a strong cipher. (Score:2, Informative)

    by jonadab (583620)
    The only reason it's not been solved until now is because no serious cryptanalyst was working on it. As soon as I read the description of how it's done, I knew it would be highly vulnerable to a known-plaintext attack. (The guy who cracked it used frequency analysis of letter pairs, because there was no known plaintext available. But if someone were using the cipher on a regular basis, there would be.)
  • ...muttering something about the DMCA.

  • And it said.... (Score:1, Redundant)

    by DeadboltX (751907)
    Don't forget to drink your Ovaltine!
  • The article said he had this all figured out in 2007 - yet the details of this cypher are just now being published in July 2009. What took so long - the quest to gain ITAR compliance?
  • This story was published in (IIRC) American Scientist a month or two ago. Yep, here we go : A Cipher to Thomas Jefferson [americanscientist.org].

    Loath though I am to send money to America, I do find myself strongly tempted to subscribing to that magazine. Seriously good brain-fodder.

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