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Decoding The Decoding

   “If cryptography is outlawed, bayl bhgynjf jvyy unir cevinpl.”
(“If cryptography is outlawed, only outlaws will have privacy.”)
                                                                    – John Perry Barlow

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Image Courtesy- Sanidhya Srivastava

Contrary to common belief, cryptology, or the practice of writing and solving codes, is not a young science. It has been used for thousands of years to hide secret messages, albeit systematic study of cryptology as a science (and perhaps an art) just started around one hundred years ago. The first known evidence of the use of cryptography (in some form) was found in an inscription carved around 1900 BC, in the main chamber of the tomb of the Egyptian nobleman, Khnumhotep II. Closer home, “Arthshashtra”, a classic work on statecraft written by Kautalya, describes the espionage   service in India, and mentions giving assignments to spies in “secret writing” – sounds like an ancient version of James Bond, eh?

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Image Courtesy- Sanidhya Srivastava

The agenda of Blank-101’s event ‘Cipher-101’, was to cover the history of cryptography as well as how it works today. Trust Blank-101 to pick the most fascinating motifs and present them in an almost fun, coherent manner. Maybe this is why NLH 202 was already full ten minutes before the event started. Most people present were regulars at Blank 101 events and seemed to be looking forward to this one as well. Without much ado and with a brief apology about the delay, Keerthana and Kartik of the club started off the event. “Blank-101 dispenses a host of knowledge for those who are curious”, said Keerthana as she introduced their club to the crowd. Then, diving right into the topic for the evening, she updated the audience on what cryptography is and its rudiments. She was loud, clear and had everyone engaged within minutes of speech. One could tell that the content was well investigated and well organised as they steered towards the history of modern cryptography and numerical notation. Examples like Vatsyayana’s cipher, which drew inspiration from how two lovers used to send letters to one another in the past, were cited. Caesar’s Cipher and the substitution cipher were also talked about.

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Image Courtesy- Sanidhya Srivastava

Any conversation about cryptography doesn’t reach conclusion without the mention of the Enigma Machine, which was “opened up and explained” on stage. As the talk approached the twentieth century developments in the field, the theme shifted to ‘computer era’ and the importance of mathematics in cryptography. ‘Alice and Bob’ were used to explain algorithms, random number generation, and asymmetric cryptography. Mention of the NSA, the creator of the DSA, invited hoo-haa from the audience.

Everything started to seem “all Greek” to a majority of the audience as they dove into deeper detail towards the end of the event. However, the audience’s interests bounced back once the speakers covered topics like cryptography in India and the legalization of encryption before concluding the talk.

Each speaker employed a set of slides packed with pictures, memes, and comic strips to help add clarity and humour to their content. The event was lucrative and fun, and to present a topic like cryptography in a broken-down, interactive manner requires one to put their thinking caps on: something Blank-101 have proven themselves to be good at, yet again.