From 260-year-old ciphers to the most recent Zodiac Killer solution, these unbreakable codes just needed time.
- After 51 years, the Zodiac Killer's infamous "340 code" has been solved.
- Humans have a natural passion for puzzles, making cryptography a lifelong pursuit for some.
- Other famous cracked codes include Poe's Challenge and Zimmermann's Letter.
How I cracked the Zodiac Killer's cipher<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="d0b8a7170b77210c07cfad50b99ef328"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/3sLFRm29eto?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><h2>Zodiac Killer</h2><p>After the Zodiac Killer's first cryptogram was quickly solved in 1969, he followed up with a 340-character puzzle that has baffled cryptographers ever since. Three men worked tirelessly on the letter and <a href="https://www.wired.com/story/zodiac-killers-cipher-finally-cracked-after-51-years/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">finally revealed the encoded message</a>: </p><p>I HOPE YOU ARE HAVING LOTS OF FUN IN TRYING TO CATCH ME THAT WASN'T ME ON THE TV SHOW WHICH BRINGS UP A POINT ABOUT ME I AM NOT AFRAID OF THE GAS CHAMBER BECAUSE IT WILL SEND ME TO PARADICE ALL THE SOONER BECAUSE I NOW HAVE ENOUGH SLAVES TO WORK FOR ME WHERE EVERYONE ELSE HAS NOTHING WHEN THEY REACH PARADICE SO THEY ARE AFRAID OF DEATH I AM NOT AFRAID BECAUSE I KNOW THAT MY NEW LIFE WILL BE AN EASY ONE IN PARADICE DEATH</p><p>While the San Francisco branch of the FBI has acknowledged the puzzle has been solved, they're not providing any more comments considering the case remains open. </p><h2>Poe's Challenge </h2><p>Edgar Allan Poe's "The Gold Bug" was based on a cipher mystery, as Poe himself was fascinated with puzzles. In 1840, he offered a free subscription to Graham's Magazine to anyone who could stump him. He claims to have solved a hundred entries, ending the contest by publishing a challenging code written by W.B. Tyler—who many at the time suspected was a pseudonym.</p><p>It wasn't until 2000 that a <a href="https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/a-cipher-from-poe-solved/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">software engineer decoded the message</a>, which opened up, "It was early spring, warm and sultry glowed the afternoon. The very breezes seemed to share the delicious languor of universal nature..."</p><p>Given the numerous typesetting mistakes, recent researchers aren't convinced that Poe actually wrote it. The author will likely remain a mystery, but the code itself is in the books. </p><h2>Copiale cipher</h2><p>An entire team spanning two countries was needed to crack the 260-year-old mystery of the <a href="https://cl.lingfil.uu.se/~bea/copiale/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Copiale cipher</a>. Unlike a few lines of prose, this 75,000-character manuscript filled 105 pages written by a group of ophthalmologists. The book was encrypted in German and relied on a complex substitution code that used symbols and letters for spaces as well as text. </p><p>Dating from the second half of the eighteenth century, the first 16 pages discuss a masonic initiation ceremony by the Oculists. The strange ritual involves initiates "reading" a blank piece of paper before being given a pair of glasses—those wily eye doctors. After their eyes are washed, the referees then pluck a single eyebrow of each recruit. </p><p>Better than college hazing, though still an odd text to keep so secretive. Then again, maybe that was the point. </p>
Slate statue of Mathematician Alan Turing at Bletchley Park
Credit: lenscap50 / Adobe Stock<h2>The Zimmermann Telegram</h2><p>Not all codes are so playful, or strange. Some are insidious. Such is the case with the <a href="https://www.history.com/news/what-was-the-zimmermann-telegram" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Zimmermann Telegram</a>, a note sent from Germany to Mexico in 1917. Intended for the German ambassador to Mexico, Heinrich von Eckardt, the Germans were preparing America's southern neighbors for battle—in the name of Germany. In exchange for weapons and funding, the Mexicans would reclaim Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas upon victory. </p><p>The cipher was cracked about a month after interception by Britain's "Room 40." The text read, in part:</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"We make Mexico a proposal of alliance on the following basis: make war together, make peace together, generous financial support and an understanding on our part that Mexico is to reconquer the lost territory in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. The settlement in detail is left to you."</p><p>Tensions between the US and Germany were already high; this message pushed America over the edge. A month later, President Wilson overruled his intention of remaining neutral and entered World War I on the side of the Allies. </p><h2>The Enigma Code </h2><p>One of the most famous cracks in history is certainly the <a href="https://www.iwm.org.uk/history/how-alan-turing-cracked-the-enigma-code" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Enigma Code</a>. If the Zimmermann Telegram helped us get into World War I, the second chapter only ended in our favor thanks to Alan Turing's unforgettable machine. </p><p>The Germans were utilizing an enciphering machine to pass messages to its Axis partners. Perhaps learning from past mistakes, they changed the entire cipher system on a daily basis. </p><p>Turing responded with his own machinery: the Bombe, Lorenz, and Universal Turing Machine. Thanks to his inventions, alongside tireless efforts by British cryptologists, the Allied forces exploited procedural flaws and operator mistakes by the Germans. The Enigma Code was cracked, saving countless Allied lives and helping turn the tide of the war. </p><p>--</p><p><em>Stay in touch with Derek on <a href="http://www.twitter.com/derekberes" target="_blank">Twitter</a> and <a href="https://www.facebook.com/DerekBeresdotcom" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Facebook</a>. His new book is</em> "<em><a href="https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B08KRVMP2M?pf_rd_r=MDJW43337675SZ0X00FH&pf_rd_p=edaba0ee-c2fe-4124-9f5d-b31d6b1bfbee" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy</a>."</em></p>
We're safeguarding the world's seeds in the Arctic, why not our most precious data?
- Buried underground near the Svalbard Global Seed Vault is the Arctic World Archive safeguarding humanity's books, documents, and data.
- The Archive includes the massive GitHub library of software code behind the world's open-source applications.
- Information in the vault is stored on special media said to be durable for 1,000 years.
For a place that's so cold, Norway's Svalbard archipelago is downright hot when it comes to safeguarding some of humanity's most precious stuff. We've written before about the Svalbard Global Seed Vault that holds the world's backup supply of seeds capable of replanting our planet's flora should some horrible catastrophe occur. Since 2017, there's been another critical repository embedded about 91 meters down in that Svalbardian mountain: It's called the Arctic World Archive (AWA) and it holds the world's books, documents, and data from across the globe.
The Arctic World Archive
The AWA describes itself as "home to manuscripts from the Vatican Library, political histories, masterpieces from different eras (including Rembrandt and Munch), scientific breakthroughs and contemporary cultural treasures." Government and research facilities can store their data at AWA, as can private companies and individuals, for a price.
"Our ambition is to be a secure world archive to help preserve the world's digital memory and ensure that the world's most irreplaceable digital memories of art, culture and literature are secured and made available to future generations." — Arctic World Archive
AWA's first deposits were made by the National Archives of Mexico and Brazil, and have been joined by a growing number of entities from over 15 countries. These include the National Museum of Norway, the European Space Agency, the Museum of the Person, and major global corporations.
GitHub’s vault with a vault
Within the AWA is the GitHub Arctic Code Vault, located roughly 76 meters below the Svalbard surface. GitHub is the preeminent library of programming code for those who develop open-source software applications. Each directory — think: folder — of code is a GitHub repository. Together, it's a massive resource used continually by countless programmers storing and sharing their source code. GitHub says it has 37 million users and holds over 100 million repositories.
21 terabytes of GitHub data have already been moved to the code vault — or copied, presumably, since GitHub remains an active day-to-day resource — beginning with the 2019 deposit of 6,000 of the most important repositories GitHub held at the time. The latest transfer contains a snapshot of all of GitHub's active libraries as of February 2, 2020.
Says GitHUb's director of strategic programs, Julia Metcalf, "Our mission is to preserve open-source software for future generations by storing your code in an archive built to last a thousand years." It's hoped that the source code in the vault will provide insight into today's programming and provide a trail of bread-crumbs that reveals the workings of apps from our era, apps that may become foundational for future applications.
How to store data for the future
The lifespan of any given storage medium is brief. Gone the way of the dinosaurs are floppy disks, cassettes, and so on — a 10-year-old may even wonder what a CD was. "It is easy to envision a future in which today's software is seen as a quaint and long-forgotten irrelevancy, until an unexpected need for it arises," says the GitHub Archive Program website. So, AWA data is stored on a specially developed, digital archival film called piqlFilm — GitHub alone has filled up 186 reels of it so far. This may at first seem sort of a retro approach, but it's not.
piql, one of the two partners behind the AWA, developed the film. The company claims it can "keep data alive" for over 1,000 years, so long as one has an app that can read it, such as the open-source app GitHub has created. piql asserts that their film has undergone "extensive longevity testing," and can withstand electromagnetic exposure.
piqlFilm is made up of layers of silver halide on a polyester backing. The data, when written, looks similar to a QR code, although it can hold far more information: Each frame in piqlFilm can pack about 8.8 million microscopic pixels. A reel of piqlFilm loaded with these frames is almost a kilometer long and can thus store a truly massive amount of data.
Of course, it remains impossible to guess the capabilities of future humans (presumably) trying to decode all this data, so GitHub has a backup plan, a human-readable document called the "Tech Tree," which they describe as "a roadmap and Rosetta Stone for future curious minds inheriting the archive's data."
Warming up to Svalbard
Svalbard has a number of attributes that have made it attractive as a permanent storage site. It's a demilitarized zone by agreement between 42 nations. It's also quite remote. Plus, it's very cold and dry, for now.
When the seed vault was first contemplated, Svalbard seemed a place that could be counted on to remain frigid, with the underground vaults dug deep into the area's permafrost safe from moisture damage. However, conditions are changing more rapidly than anticipated thanks to climate change. The Arctic, says NOAA, is warming at "twice the rate relative to the rest of the globe."
Between 1971 and 2017, the temperature in the Svalbard area has risen by 3-5° Celsius. Svalbard's current average temperature is -8.7° C, but models suggests that with moderate global emission levels going forward it will go up by 7° C, and with heavy emissions up by 10° C.
Already, there has been at least one incident of ice melting and then freezing in the entrance to a seed vault tunnel. Also, less snow and ice means more rain, which can cause landslides in the previously stable local environment, and glaciers nearby are breaking up more frequently.
The seed vault's managers say, for now, that it looks like their vaults will be okay, and the people running the AWA and the GitHub Arctic Code Vault are also optimistic.
The tech giants seem to be all in on blockchain.
- With everyone from Google, to Amazon, to Long Island Iced Tea dipping their toes into blockchain recently, it's hardly surprising that IBM has decided to jump on the bandwagon - and on a huge scale.
- IBM stands to gain a significant amount by getting in on the action early. There's a reason why blockchain is gaining popularity so quickly. Its potential to improve business efficiency across a huge range of industries is huge.
- If they play their cards right and learn from their mistakes with Watson, IBM will have a significant advantage over its competitors across the blockchain industry in the long-term.