Secret Messages: Using Codes and Ciphers
The Easy Stuff
Codes, ciphers and cryptology are names for messages disguised by means of various substitutions of one thing to represent another, whether words, letters, symbols, or numbers.
By the time any child is in junior high school--what they refer to asl "middle school" these days-- they have probably mastered at least one type of a cryptic substitution code at is most basic level.
Usually this is done for the purpose of foiling the teacher should they get caught passing notes in class. I know I traveled that road, usually in classes with a long-winded, boring teacher. Hey--it was a defense against falling asleep from the monotone monologue. Falling asleep in class would probably have brought a stiffer punishment than passing the notes. Heh, heh.
Oh, well, those days are behind me, but I still remember them with some fondess and a naughty sense of fun. I was inspired to write this slightly more personal memoir because of the great coverage of the topic by another writer here (no longer writing on this site). He wrote about the military uses of the craft of codes, and his excellent descriptions triggered these memories.
I am tackling the fun and games angle.
Elementary School Cipher
The First Chart
The very first substitution code I ever learned was in grade school. Almost every child carried around the code sheet to translate the text. In retrospect, I doubt any teacher on the planet would have been fooled. Kids seem to be notoriously naïve in thinking that they can put something of that nature past their parents or teachers who have 'been there; done that' before their kids were even a remote thought.
We all had these hand-drawn charts, just like the one above right, to 'crack' our coded messages, and we thought we were some kind of special secret agents! Some of us even used them enough to memorize the sequence and no longer needed to refer to the chart. Not admitting guilt or anything--I'm just saying.
Using this particular cipher, then, here's a simple coded message for you:
SVOOL, SLD ZIV BLF?
A Little Later On...
That was elementary school. By the time I hit high school, a friend and I invented our own more "sophisticated" coding system. We stuck with the alphabet letters,used in their correct sequence and with un-altered spellings. We thought we were taking our cue from ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, of all things! Ah,youth!
However, we made twisted caricatures out of the letters. Oh, how clever we thought we were! Regular Dick Tracys--on the distaff side! Shoot--we missed the boat! We should have gone into business and made our fortunes selling secret code books and sponsoring treasure hunts on the backs of cereal boxes and comic books! HA!
Try this one on for size--it does get a bit trickier than the original, for the same reason that not everyone's handwriting is the same or even always legible, so variations in the figures occur.
This message below, can be translated with the cheat sheet below the message.
"Hieroglyphics" Master Code
Have you ever experimented with or used codes?
More Advanced Things
Briefly, there are many more kinds of ciphers and codes than can be covered in a single article, or even a few articles. It is an entire course of study unto itself. At its most sophisticated, it has ties to national security, espionage and other military-type applications.
There was the automated "enigma" machine of World War II, and even that was somewhat simplistic, as it was soon enough figured out by the allies. There have been books written and movies made about just this one aspect of that war.
If you have seen the movie, "Wind Talkers," that covered another aspect of wartime secret code, in which an ancient and not-well-known language, that of the Native-American Navajo, was used as the basis for the code.
However, it was not strictly the Navajo language; it used the language to create a cipher system, where words or sounds stood for English words, but no one trying to break the code had a clue about the Navajo, making it the only successful and unbroken code of its day.
The Wind Talkers Official Trailer
Another form of code is fairly time-consuming both for the creator of the message and the recipient(s). Have you ever seen the "Jumbles" puzzles in the newspaper, in which there are a series of words which must be determined by means of a hint and a visual, usually a small cartoon? Within the solution boxes, certain letters are circled. These letters must then be unscrambled to reveal the solution. The resulting solution is an anagram of the solved-for letters. Minus the cartoon, it would be even harder.
Yet another very complex kind of code involves a great deal of time on both ends. In this format, each party must own the identical set of books, same edition. Each book is assigned a letter or number as a master source code. Once the message is written, the creator selects a source book, and refers to certain pages, paragraphs and letters within the given book.
For example, let us say that a given book has been given a source master code of "A-1:" and with that, the recipient knows which book to use. He then sees: "17: 4: 25." That tells him the first letter of the message is to be found on page 17, 4th paragraph, 25th letter into the paragraph.
For "simplicity" (the term being relative) the coder would stick to a single source book, and the "A-1" designator would not appear for subsequent letters. Anyone trying to break the code would need not only the master list of source books, but also be sure they owned the exact same edition, or placements could be off.
In an even "easier" version of this, the final number would refer to the entire word located in the referenced source, page and paragraph, rather than just one of the letters.
Sneaking Into the Edge of Computer Language
Binary code. It runs all our computers. It is a language of only ones and zeroes, which the machine understands as on and off switches. A one is 'on,' a zero is 'off,' and that is the most basic over-simplified explanation you are likely to find anywhere.
It is, of course, far more complex than that. There are multiple gazillions of those ones and zeros in even more combinations, telling the computer how to recognize plain-English input. (Or any other language, for that matter.) The people who invented binary code were geniuses to think of such a simple thing that could accomplish so many complex tasks, from writing these articles to making lightning-fast mathematical calculations and so much more. Without binary code, none of us would be writing on Hub Pages, posting status updates on, Face Book, or indeed, even have such a thing as the World Wide Web.
Back when my kids were in Girl Scouts, there was a merit badge for introduction to computer science. Of course, this was well before the era of Face Book or any other 'social media' platform. Computers were used for work, not play. This badge task explained binary code to only 5 places. That accounted for enough numbers to represent our entire 26-character alphabet. It works like this
( Mind you well: the code that follows is not real computer code by any stretch. It is a mere introduction to the basic concept):
- The code is read from right to left to determine place-number
- Each place is valued as double it's neighbor to the right, and half its neighbor to the left
- zeros function as place-holders, just as in traditional numbering systems
- For clarity, I've inserted spaces between the in-text examples. Spaces, however, are not used in the actual code.
Therefore, a string reading as follows: 0 0 0 0 1 has a value of 1. This corresponds to the first letter, "A."
The next value will be 2, represented as: 0 0 0 1 0 .. Remember, there are only ones and zeroes involved. It is the placement that determines the value. So, the "2" placement would equal the letter "B." and so on.
The next value to the left is 4, shown as: 0 0 1 0 0 (or "D").
Uh-oh...what happened to "C" you ask? There are no odd numbers save the first value!! Well, you have to do some addition within the code. Since we know that 2 + 1 = 3, we simply fill both the 1 value and the 2 value spots, thusly:
0 0 0 1 1 = "3" or "C."
After 4 comes 8, then 16, respectively: 0 1 0 0 0 , and 1 0 0 0 0. By using the addition of the place values, you can add up these values to represent all 26 letters of the alphabet. So, "Z" would be represented as: 1 1 0 1 0 (16 + 8 + 2 = 26).
A simple "hello" then, would look like this: 01000 00101 01100 01100 01111
At 5 digits per letter, this is a cumbersome code, and not easily cracked by anyone unfamiliar with binary numbering.
That said, please do not mistake me for a computer geek or techie. I am not. Real computer code uses far more places than just 5 slots.. This code, as I have presented it here, is all I know of the matter, so please don't ask me any computer-related questions. Take those over to fellow Hubber, Pcunix! ;-)
A secret is a secret only so long as it is known
to only one person.
Usefulness of Codes
In the end, none of it truly matters. As long as there are code makers, there will be code breakers. The most sophisticated codes are useful for only a short time before someone figures them out, then they become relegated to the realm of games and entertainment. Only a single wartime code remained unbroken for the duration--that of the 'Wind Talkers" mentioned above.
© 2011 Liz Elias