Back to Caesar’s Cipher

In the midst of conflict—man’s permanent condition—maintaining operational secrecy from one’s enemies is paramount. A spirited lad named Julius Caesar recognized this imperative before most others. As such, he developed a solution to encode messages couriers bore to his generals. It was a stroke of diabolical genius: shift the intended letter three spaces to the right. For example, A became D and O became R. To decrypt, one needed to know the “key,” how many letters were shifted. The fact that there were only 25 effective possibilities was most likely a comment on Caesar’s perception of his opponents’ intellect. Though in a modern application, for instance, Obama would likely send the following message to Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Martin Dempsey: QLFH DVV, FXWLH. Or perhaps: ZDQQD JHW KLJK?

As an odd historical footnote, Julius’ apparently less calculating nephew Augustus found his uncle’s method too mentally taxing, and elected instead only a one-letter shift in his communiques.

Modern cryptography has advanced far from those humble origins. Some algorithms are now even capable of thwarting analysis by grown men counting with the fingers of both hands. Though whether US Confederates using the Vigenere Cipher or Germans using Enigma, the principle of signal confidentiality and integrity remains critical. And that’s where the NSA is here to help.

As a key part of a campaign to embed encryption software that it could crack into widely used computer products, the U.S. National Security Agency arranged a secret $10 million contract with RSA, one of the most influential firms in the computer security industry, Reuters has learned.

Documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden show that the NSA created and promulgated a flawed formula for generating random numbers to create a “back door” in encryption products, the New York Times reported in September. Reuters later reported that RSA became the most important distributor of that formula by rolling it into a software tool called Bsafe that is used to enhance security in personal computers and many other products.

Undisclosed until now was that RSA received $10 million in a deal that set the NSA formula as the preferred, or default, method for number generation in the BSafe software

RSA, now a subsidiary of computer storage giant EMC Corp, urged customers to stop using the NSA formula after the Snowden disclosures revealed its weakness.

That’s what I appreciate: conscientious corporate stewardship. Dear customer, please be advised that our security products should not be used under any circumstance. As always, our commitment is to your contentment.

The RSA deal shows one way the NSA carried out what Snowden’s documents describe as a key strategy for enhancing surveillance: the systematic erosion of security tools. NSA documents released in recent months called for using “commercial relationships” to advance that goal, but did not name any security companies as collaborators.

The White House, meanwhile, says it will consider this week’s panel recommendation that any efforts to subvert cryptography be abandoned.

Yes, certainly they’ll give that due consideration. Here is a brief video taken surreptitiously of Obama and his advisers reacting to the panel recommendation to abandon efforts at subverting encryption standards…


But this RSA foofaraw is relatively small. The huge catch for the NSA would be breaking AES 256. Some think they already have. And if that’s the case, we’re going to need a bigger algorithm.

Unrelated Addenda: Bill Clinton was arrested for “furiously masturbating” in a high school hallway, and a septegenarian substitute teacher was photographed with prostitutes. Goodnight.


One thought on “Back to Caesar’s Cipher

  1. I wouldn’t be entirely surprised if RSA executives are among those bemoaning the “STEM shortage” and awaiting the Government’s payback of a further Third World infusion.

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