History of Cryptography - Medieval Cryptography

Medieval Cryptography

See also: Voynich Manuscript

It was probably religiously motivated textual analysis of the Qur'an which led to the invention of the frequency analysis technique for breaking monoalphabetic substitution ciphers, possibly by Al-Kindi, an Arab mathematician, sometime around AD 800 (Ibrahim Al-Kadi −1992). It was the most fundamental cryptanalytic advance until WWII. Al-Kindi wrote a book on cryptography entitled Risalah fi Istikhraj al-Mu'amma (Manuscript for the Deciphering Cryptographic Messages), in which he described the first cryptanalysis techniques, including some for polyalphabetic ciphers, cipher classification, Arabic phonetics and syntax, and, most importantly, gave the first descriptions on frequency analysis. He also covered methods of encipherments, cryptanalysis of certain encipherments, and statistical analysis of letters and letter combinations in Arabic.

Ahmad al-Qalqashandi (1355–1418) wrote the Subh al-a 'sha, a 14-volume encyclopedia which included a section on cryptology. This information was attributed to Ibn al-Durayhim who lived from 1312 to 1361, but whose writings on cryptography have been lost. The list of ciphers in this work included both substitution and transposition, and for the first time, a cipher with multiple substitutions for each plaintext letter. Also traced to Ibn al-Durayhim is an exposition on and worked example of cryptanalysis, including the use of tables of letter frequencies and sets of letters which can not occur together in one word.

Essentially all ciphers remained vulnerable to the cryptanalytic technique of frequency analysis until the development of the polyalphabetic cipher, and many remained so thereafter. The polyalphabetic cipher was most clearly explained by Leon Battista Alberti around the year 1467, for which he was called the "father of Western cryptology". Johannes Trithemius, in his work Poligraphia, invented the tabula recta, a critical component of the Vigenère cipher. The French cryptographer Blaise de Vigenere devised a practical poly alphabetic system which bears his name, the Vigenère cipher.

In Europe, cryptography became (secretly) more important as a consequence of political competition and religious revolution. For instance, in Europe during and after the Renaissance, citizens of the various Italian states—the Papal States and the Roman Catholic Church included—were responsible for rapid proliferation of cryptographic techniques, few of which reflect understanding (or even knowledge) of Alberti's polyalphabetic advance. 'Advanced ciphers', even after Alberti, weren't as advanced as their inventors / developers / users claimed (and probably even themselves believed). They were regularly broken. This over-optimism may be inherent in cryptography for it was then, and remains today, fundamentally difficult to accurately know how vulnerable your system actually is. In the absence of knowledge, guesses and hopes, as may be expected, are common.

Cryptography, cryptanalysis, and secret agent/courier betrayal featured in the Babington plot during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I which led to the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots. An encrypted message from the time of the Man in the Iron Mask (decrypted just prior to 1900 by Étienne Bazeries) has shed some, regrettably non-definitive, light on the identity of that real, if legendary and unfortunate, prisoner.

Outside of Europe, after the end of the Muslim Golden Age at the hand of the Mongols, cryptography remained comparatively undeveloped. Cryptography in Japan seems not to have been used until about 1510, and advanced techniques were not known until after the opening of the country to the West beginning in the 1860s. During the 1920s, it was Polish naval officers who assisted the Japanese military with code and cipher development.

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Famous quotes containing the word medieval:

    The medieval university looked backwards; it professed to be a storehouse of old knowledge.... The modern university looks forward, and is a factory of new knowledge.
    Thomas Henry Huxley (1825–1895)