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What is Cryptanalysis?

Cryptanalysis is a more technical word for the very advanced study of breaking codes. The types of individuals who become cryptanalysts utilize a unique combination of Sherlock-like detective skills and hacker-like abilities in order to discover the hidden aspects of a system. There are some universal traits of language that cryptanalyst are able to use to solve codes. The most important features of the individuals that work in this field are patience and perseverance. It can take an extremely long amount of time to crack a particular code.

What is Cryptanalysis?

Cryptanalysis is the investigation of systems, ciphertext, and ciphers in order to reveal the hidden meaning or details of the system itself. The goal of this type of study is to discover the hidden aspects even if the key or main algorithm is unable to be deciphered. It takes a successful blend of persistence, mathematics, intuition, inquisitiveness, and a working computer to make a good cryptanalyst. This type of code breaking is extremely important especially in today’s technologically dependent world. Cryptology is constantly being pushed and pulled forward by both cryptographers trying to secure valuable information and by those who are trying to break the code to reveal the secrets. Careers in this field are typically on the federal level.

Types of Ciphers & Methods of Cryptanalysis

There are several different methods that can be utilized in order to break ciphers. The easiest codes to crack are those which have existed the longest time. Modern cryptography is becoming increasingly difficult to solve with the wide use of computers to create previously inconceivable algorithms.

  • Caesar Cipher

    This type of cipher is one of the very earliest and simplest forms of coding. Put simply each letter is shifted an exact number of letters away from the original letter. For example, using a key of two letters A would become C and D would become F in the coded letter. In order to solve the algorithm the cryptanalyst only needs to discover the constant number of letter shifts that is being used in the code. This makes solving the cipher extremely simple. There are only twenty five different possibilities so it would be easy to try each possibility until you get readable text. If this is not possible then a cryptanalyst can use letter frequency to crack the code. This type of cipher is named after Julius Caesar because he would commonly communicate with his generals using this type of secret text.

  • Text Characterization

    When trying to find the key to solving a certain text there are a number of methods a cryptanalyst can use to come closer to their goal. The main techniques that are used to characterize the text are counting frequency, identifying patterns, and using CRANK, the cryptanalysis tool kit. There are much more complex methods such as the Index of Coincidence which roughly estimates the frequency in which certain letters are distributed in certain languages. By comparing this to the code certain patterns may help reveal the key. Another and more complicated method is called Quad-gram Statistics. It can be used in a similar manner by adding up all the likelihoods of ciphertext appearing in a length of four blocks which will tell the cryptanalyst how close the code is to true English.

Modern Cryptanalysis

One example of a modern technique is timing or differential power analysis. Basically the analyst will measure differences in the consumption of electricity when a microchip is securing information. Over time information can be gained about the encryption algorithm and can be helpful in getting information about other security functions of the chip. There are several more modern and unorthodox methods of cryptanalysis. With technology it is possible to fool individuals into giving up their passwords and keys or trick them into utilizing a weak and breakable cryptosystem. Another modern technique of cryptanalysis is using Trojan horse viruses to steal the secret key from the individual’s computer.

Security Careers in Cryptanalysis

Currently the FBI has a cryptanalysis and Racketeering Records Unit which is responsible for studying encrypted records and documents to assist in identifying criminal or terrorist activities. The cryptanalysis agent will be responsible for examining all kinds of ciphers and codes in written communications, e-mails, and records. The goal is to identify illegal activities. Codes are commonly used by those in prison, international terrorist, violent criminals, and foreign intelligence agents. The members in these security fields are expected to provide information as well as expert testimony in legal proceedings in order to stop criminal behavior.

The National Security Agency values cryptanalysis highly and regards this type of discipline as necessary regardless of the passing of time. The NSA believes that this decryption of codes is absolutely necessary in order to provide intelligence to nations around the world and protect the nation’s security. They hire a wide variety of people from different backgrounds and do not seek out any type of specific major for these security careers. Once accepted into their program the NSA will provide formal training for these security fields. The intelligence these agents are able to collect from their work can be used in various ways from combating crime and terrorism to discovering ground-breaking technology.

This extremely challenging line of work is usually performed at the federal level and has proven throughout history to be extremely important to the security of individuals, companies, and even nations. During WWII, for example, the United States employed Navajo Native Americans in order to encode messages based on their language. This type of coded language was so unique and challenging that it was never broken by the enemy and played an integral role in the United State’s victory. With technology always increasing and the modern day reliance on the internet it seems that the field of cryptanalysis will grow even more and become increasingly important for our nation’s security.



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Find Your School is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.