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Everything you need to know about Codes and Ciphers


Codes and ciphers have always been around us, as they have long been the primary form of secret communication. They can be used to communicate important messages in a masked way so the enemy can’t figure it out in important wars. Some examples are Navajo Code Talkers, Union Route Code, Morse Code, Greek Box Code, Geometric Code, Sycatale, the Enigma, and more.

A code is a system of symbols substituted for other symbols. Cryptography is the writing of messages in the secret code. Cryptographists encode and decode these messages to find the real meaning. A secret message is encoded by changing plain text into coded text. Then, it is decoded with the original key so the message can be read.

Codes and ciphers are very similar. However, a code is a system where every word or phrase in the message is replaced by another word, phrase or symbol, while a cipher is a system where every letter of the message is replaced by another letter or symbol.

There are 2 ways to create a code or cipher: transposition and substitution.

Transposition is the rearranging the order of items in something, like an anagram. In anagrams, you mix up the letters in the word, and then, to discover the word, you have to put them back in order. For example, one anagram is vloes - see if you can solve it!

Substitution is when you use a symbol to represent something other than the actual thing. To solve and create substitutions codes or ciphers, you have to have a key. You have to substitute the symbols in the code using the key to find the meaning.

Modern cryptography uses secure codes and the use of public key cryptography. It requires a public key and a private key. The public key is given and the corresponding private key is known only to the owner or the creator. The keys go together - if you’re missing one, you won’t be able to encode or decode the message.

Fun Facts

There are some codes that have remained unsolved. One example is the code message on Kryptos sculpture in the CIA Agency building at Langley. To this date, only 3 of the 4 codes on that sculpture have been solved. Cryptographists are still working on it!

Navajo Code Talkers used Indigenous language to transmit messages in World War II. There is no written key, so they had to memorize the code. This was good to keep it secret - the key and the encoded message could never fall into the hands of the enemy.

President Thomas Jefferson created the cipher wheel in the 1790’s. It had 36 wooden disks, each with 26 letters in random order along the edge. The cipher wheel is still used today!

The Beale cipher contains the location of a treasure. There are many doubts about whether it is real or the whole story is a hoax. Thomas J. Beale created it, and he must’ve made a really hard cipher, because it is still unsolved.

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