My 2019 Mathematics A To Z: Encryption schemes


Today’s A To Z term is encryption schemes. It’s another suggested by aajohannas. It’s a chance to dip into information theory.

Mr Wu, author of the Mathtuition88 blog, suggested the Extreme Value Theorem. I was tempted and then realized that I had written this in the 2018 A-to-Z, as the “X” letter. The end of the alphabet has a shortage of good mathematics words. Sometimes we have to work around problems.

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Encryption schemes.

Why encrypt anything?

The oldest reason to hide a message, at least from all but select recipients. Ancient encryption methods will substitute one letter for another, or will mix up the order of letters in a message. This won’t hide a message forever. But it will slow down a person trying to decrypt the message until they decide they don’t need to know what it says. Or decide to bludgeon the message-writer into revealing the secret.

Substituting one letter for another won’t stop an eavesdropper from working out the message. Not indefinitely, anyway. There are patterns in the language. Any language, but take English as an example. A single-letter word is either ‘I’ or ‘A’. A two-letter word has a great chance of being ‘in’, ‘on’, ‘by’, ‘of’, ‘an’, or a couple other choices. Solving this is a fun pastime, for people who like this. If you need it done fast, let a computer work it out.

To hide the message better requires being cleverer. For example, you could substitue letters according to a slightly different scheme for each letter in the original message. The Vignère cipher is an example of this. I remember some books from my childhood, written in the second person. They had programs that you-the-reader could type in to live the thrill of being a child secret agent computer programmer. This encryption scheme was one of the programs used for passing on messages. We can make the plans more complicated yet, but that won’t give us better insight yet.

The objective is to turn the message into something less predictable. An encryption which turns, say, ‘the’ into ‘rgw’ will slow the reader down. But if they pay attention and notice, oh, the text also has the words ‘rgwm’, ‘rgey’, and rgwb’ turn up a lot? It’s hard not to suspect these are ‘the’, ‘them’, ‘they’, and ‘then’. If a different three-letter code is used for every appearance of ‘the’, good. If there’s a way to conceal the spaces as something else, that’s even better, if we want it harder to decrypt the message.

So the messages hardest to decrypt should be the most random. We can give randomness a precise definition. We owe it to information theory, which is the study of how to encode and successfully transmit and decode messages. In this, the information content of a message is its entropy. Yes, the same word as used to describe broken eggs and cream stirred into coffee. The entropy measures how likely each possible message is. Encryption matches the message you really want with a message of higher entropy. That is, one that’s harder to predict. Decrypting reverses that matching.

So what goes into a message? We call them words, or codewords, so we have a clear noun to use. A codeword is a string of letters from an agreed-on alphabet. The terminology draws from common ordinary language. Cryptography grew out of sending sentences.

But anything can be the letters of the alphabet. Any string of them can be a codeword. An unavoidable song from my childhood told the story of a man asking his former lover to tie a yellow ribbon around an oak tree. This is a tiny alphabet, but it only had to convey two words, signalling whether she was open to resuming their relationship. Digital computers use an alphabet of two memory states. We label them ‘0’ and ‘1’, although we could as well label them +5 and -5, or A and B, or whatever. It’s not like actual symbols are scrawled very tight into the chips. Morse code uses dots and dashes and short and long pauses. Naval signal flags have a set of shapes and patterns to represent the letters of the alphabet, as well as common or urgent messages. There is not a single universally correct number of letters or length of words for encryption. It depends on what the code will be used for, and how.

Naval signal flags help me to my next point. There’s a single pattern which, if shown, communicates the message “I require a pilot”. Another, “I am on fire and have dangerous cargo”. Still another, “All persons should report on board as the vessel is about to set to sea”. These are whole sentences; they’re encrypted into a single letter.

And this is the second great use of encryption. English — any human language — has redundancy to it. Think of the sentence “No, I’d rather not go out this evening”. It’s polite, but is there anything in it not communicated by texting back “N”? An encrypted message is, often, shorter than the original. To send a message costs something. Time, if nothing else. To send it more briefly is typically better.

There are dangers to this. Strike out any word from “No, I’d rather not go out this evening”. Ask someone to guess what belongs there. Only the extroverts will have trouble. I guess if you strike out “evening” people might guess “today” or “tomorrow” or something. The sentiment of the sentence remains.

But strike out a letter from “N” and ask someone to guess what was meant. And this is a danger of encryption. The encrypted message has a higher entropy, a higher unpredictability. If some mistake happens in transmission, we’re lost.

We can fight this. It’s possible to build checks into an encryption. To carry a bit of extra information that lets one know that the message was garbled. These are “error-detecting codes”. It’s even possible to carry enough extra information to correct some errors. These are “error-correcting codes”. There are limits, of course. This kind of error-correcting takes calculation time and message space. We lose some economy but gain reliability. There is a general lesson in this.

And not everything can compress. There are (if I’m reading this right) 26 letter, 10 numeral, and four repeater flags used under the International Code of Symbols. So there are at most 40 signals that could be reduced to a single flag. If we need to communicate “I am on fire but have no dangerous cargo” we’re at a loss. We have to spell things out more. It’s a quick proof, by way of the pigeonhole principle, which tells us that not every message can compress. But this is all right. There are many messages we will never need to send. (“I am on fire and my cargo needs updates on Funky Winkerbean.”) If it’s mostly those that have no compressed version, who cares?

Encryption schemes are almost as flexible as language itself. There are families of kinds of schemes. This lets us fit schemes to needs: how many different messages do we need to be able to send? How sure do we need to be that errors are corrected? Or that errors are detected? How hard do we want it to be for eavesdroppers to decode the message? Are we able to set up information with the intended recipients separately? What we need, and what we are willing to do without, guide the scheme we use.


Thank you again for reading. All of Fall 2019 A To Z posts should be at this link. I hope to have a letter F piece on Thursday. All of the A To Z essays should be at this link and if I can sort out some trouble with the first two, they will be soon. And if you’d like to nominate topics for essays, I’m asking for the letters I through N at this link.

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Author: Joseph Nebus

I was born 198 years to the day after Johnny Appleseed. The differences between us do not end there. He/him.

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