The Greatest Fool Can Ask A Question A Wise Man Cannot Answer

The Greatest Fool Can Ask A Question A Wise Man Cannot Answer

November 22nd, 2010 // 10:31 am @

The title of this post is from the first sentence of a response to a post on Slashdot about Kryptos, a sculpture that features four panels of encrypted text. The statue, located on the grounds of the CIA, was dedicated in November, 1980 – the pursuit of the decoded message started then too, and it continues even now.

So the question arises – given that the sculpture has been in plain sight for 20 years, that copies of the encrypted text are available online, that three of the four panels have been deciphered (refer to the Wikipedia article), why is it taking so long to decipher the fourth panel? The reply in the Slashdot discussion describes the reasoning:

It’s incredible [sic] easy to make a cipher so convulated [sic] and impractical (e.g. encode by the phase of the moon determined by the fourteenth character, then transpose all vowels, add up the number of strokes within each letter using the Arial font, multiply those numbers by the number 10 places ahead of it, then look those up on a ceasar [sic] cipher) that it’s boring and uninteresting to decipher it and pretty much “impossible”. Unfortunately, it also becomes incredibly useless as a cipher then because it becomes tedious to communicate using it, and the security of a cipher has nothing to do with its difficulty of encryption or decryption procedure – you’ll probably find that a couple of supercomputers could find enough patterns in the above “cipher” that they could find the right answers without having to even KNOW the phase of the moon.
The poster goes on to explain mathematical ciphers (comments in square brackets are my comments):

The thing about mathematical ciphers is that the method is public and yet they are still incredibly difficult to decrypt. This [the sculpture’s cipher] isn’t an interesting cipher, mathematically speaking, because the method is closed so it could be anything. All we have is some jumbled text and (presumably) a sensible answer that we’re not privy to. It’s more a children’s puzzle than a cipher, just a very difficult one – because nobody actually uses this cipher to communicate (so the cipher can be unnecessarily complicated without actually being *secure*, the plaintext could well be complete junk, the message may even be erroneously encoded, and there’s only a single – non-militarily-important – instance of an encoded text).

He goes on, later in the reply, explaining why a ciphered message is important and the role it plays in deciphering it:

The importance of a ciphered message is more related to its origin, the probability of it being an unintentional leak, the probability of it being militarily important, and other non-mathematical factors. Then, if you have the impetus, running it through a supercomputer with what little you know or (infinitely better) getting a couple more messages that use the same scheme and are likely to reveal commonalities. That’s how we beat Engima. This is just a puzzle-book, and quite boring because it can actually just be gibberish and nobody would really care.

He explains what he means by a puzzle-book:

In short – nobody cares. It’s like the book-competitions where someone buries treasure and publishes a book which “gives the details” of where it’s buried. It’s pretty much chance if you find it or not because there is no requirement for the answer to be logical, practical or even decryptable. The one I saw, you had to draw a line from the eye of a character on each artwork-strewn page, through their index finger, to a particular letter in a word on the outside of the page border, then interpret those clues which narrowed things down to an entire field somewhere in the UK – the “winner” was the author’s former-flatmate’s girlfriend.”

A very compact, yet comprehensive reply.

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