From the Da Vinci Code to Windtalkers*, people are fascinated by secret messages, encryptions, and ciphers. Now students have a chance to see if they have what it takes to be a code breaker!
The Kryptos competition is a unique codebreaking challenge developed by Central Washington University mathematics professor Stuart Boersma, and his colleague, Cheryl Beaver, a Western Oregon University mathematics professor. Open to undergraduate students, Kryptos is centered on the breaking, or cryptanalysis, of ciphers (secret writing). Each challenge presents contestants with a brief scenario together with some ciphertext (encoded message). The goal is to discover the original English plaintext message.
“Although this is primarily for college undergraduates, I certainly welcome contestants from high schools,” said Boersma. “While most of our students are from the Pacific Northwest, since this is an online contest, people can enter from just about anywhere in the world.”
Individual undergraduate students, or teams of up to three, are eligible to participate. Each individual or team must have a faculty sponsor to register. Last year, there were more than 100 entrants. Even if you don’t qualify as a contestant, you can go to the Kryptos website, www.cwu.edu/math/kryptos, to look at the previous years’ challenges and solutions—and test your skills as a cryptanalyst.
According to Boersma, who is teaching an upper level mathematics course in cryptology this spring, many of the challenges are based on historical ciphers that pre-date World War II. And while computers can be helpful in breaking some of the codes, most can be solved—if a little tediously—with paper and pencil.
“The main objective is to have fun,” said Boersma. “Most students with a little familiarity with ciphers or code-breaking will be able to solve the challenges. They aren’t overly technical nor do they use advanced mathematical algorithms.”
He continues, “While we haven’t had a challenge in Navajo—yet—there was an audio challenge in a previous year!”
When the contest begins at 4:00 p.m. on April 10, the 2014 Cipher Challenges will be posted on the Kryptos website. Solutions need to be submitted by 4:00 p.m. April 14. All times are Pacific Daylight Time.
The contest is sponsored by the Pacific Northwest section of the Mathematical Association of America.
*Windtalkers is a 2002 film about the use of the Navajo code in World War II. The Navajo code was based on: 1) the Navajo language—an extremely difficult language; and 2) a code embedded in the language, meaning that even native speakers would be confused by it. Supposedly, this code was close to unbreakable, and so difficult that only a few people could actually learn it. (from Wikipedia)
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