High-security low-tech ciphers compared

mallet_tooth3-1Not a totally unlikely scenario: you need to send some extremely sensitive information to someone, using email or whatnot, and you suspect that your phone, your computer, and all electronic devices around you have been bugged. The only thing you have is paper, pencil, maybe some stone as in the picture, and your brains. Some people would prefer that everything is done in your head, but I will presume that you can burn the paper where you did your work afterwards, leaving no traces (hard to do with stone, though). There are a few admittedly low-tech symmetric ciphers that claim to work well in this situation, producing ciphertext that even the NSA would have trouble cracking. I go first over desirable features, then look at the different ciphers and what they have to offer, and conclude with some scores and comparison between them. Nothing prevented their having been invented centuries ago and, had they been available back then the history of the world might have turned out quite different. (more…)

The Scrabble cipher

scrabble-610x445-1Back in 1918, John F. Byrne invented an encryption machine, which he called Chaocipher. He tried unsuccessfully to sell it to the US government until his death in 1960 while keeping it a secret. He published some samples of its output in his memoirs, mystifying a whole generation of cryptanalysts. Then, in 2010 his son’s widow decided to release the secret papers describing the inner workings of the machine. It turned out to consist of two rotors with movable letters, which shifted according to a simple pattern. The key was the initial position of the letters in both rotors. Simple and surprisingly effective, although it is somewhat doubtful that Byrne ever built a working machine (the only working prototype was allegedly destroyed (?), and only a cardboard mockup and a blueprint  of the original have survived). I ran into the concept a couple weeks ago and I haven’t been able to stop thinking on how to improve it, and I believe I’ve found something as powerful and quite a bit simpler to use. I call it the Scrabble cipher because you can run it with the help of letter tiles. (more…)

Are today’s communications more secure than ever?

charles-barsotti-enemies-yes-but-doesn-t-your-moat-also-keep-out-love-new-yorker-cartoonI’m going to start this post blowing the punch line, which is an unequivocal: “yes, but…” Yes because today’s communications can use stronger encryption than ever, and it’s getting stronger all the time, historically speaking. Ah, but the but. . . . You’ve got to read the article to see how we’re managing to throw all that security out the window, and what can be done about it. (more…)