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.

Cartoony banner illustration of a coati, a raccoon-like animal, flying a kite in the clear autumn sky. A skywriting plane has written 'MATHEMATIC A TO Z'; the kite, with the letter 'S' on it to make the word 'MATHEMATICS'.
Art by Thomas K Dye, creator of the web comics Projection Edge, Newshounds, Infinity Refugees, and Something Happens. He’s on Twitter as @projectionedge. You can get to read Projection Edge six months early by subscribing to his Patreon.

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.

The Summer 2017 Mathematics A To Z: Elliptic Curves


Gaurish, of the For The Love Of Mathematics gives me another subject today. It’s one that isn’t about ellipses. Sad to say it’s also not about elliptic integrals. This is sad to me because I have a cute little anecdote about a time I accidentally gave my class an impossible problem. I did apologize. No, nobody solved it anyway.

Summer 2017 Mathematics A to Z, featuring a coati (it's kind of the Latin American raccoon) looking over alphabet blocks, with a lot of equations in the background.
Art courtesy of Thomas K Dye, creator of the web comic Newshounds. He has a Patreon for those able to support his work. He’s also open for commissions, starting from US$10.

Elliptic Curves.

Elliptic Curves start, of course, with polynomials. Particularly, they’re polynomials with two variables. We call the ‘x’ and ‘y’ because we have no reason to be difficult. They’re of at most third degree. That is, we can have terms like ‘x’ and ‘y2‘ and ‘x2y’ and ‘y3‘. Something with higher powers, like, ‘x4‘ or ‘x2y2‘ — a fourth power, all together — is right out. Doesn’t matter. Start from this and we can do some slick changes of variables so that we can rewrite it to look like this:

y^2 = x^3 + Ax + B

Here, ‘A’ and ‘B’ are some numbers that don’t change for this particular curve. Also, we need it to be true that 4A^3 + 27B^2 doesn’t equal zero. It avoids problems. What we’ll be looking at are coordinates, values of ‘x’ and ‘y’ together which make this equation true. That is, it’s points on the curve. If you pick some real numbers ‘A’ and ‘B’ and draw all the values of ‘x’ and ‘y’ that make the equation true you get … well, there’s different shapes. They all look like those microscope photos of a water drop emerging and falling from a tap, only rotated clockwise ninety degrees.

So. Pick any of these curves that you like. Pick a point. I’m going to name your point ‘P’. Now pick a point once more. I’m going to name that point ‘Q’. Now draw a line from P through Q. Keep drawing it. It’ll cross the original elliptic curve again. And that point is … not actually special. What is special is the reflection of that point. That is, the same x-coordinate, but flip the plus or minus sign for the y-coordinate. (WARNING! Do not call it “the reflection” at your thesis defense! Call it the “conjugate” point. It means “reflection”.) Your elliptic curve will be symmetric around the x-axis. If, say, the point with x-coordinate 4 and y-coordinate 3 is on the curve, so is the point with x-coordinate 4 and y-coordinate -3. So that reflected point is … something special.

Kind of a curved-out less-than-sign shape.
y^2 = x^3 - 1 . The water drop bulges out from the surface.

This lets us do something wonderful. We can think of this reflected point as the sum of your ‘P’ and ‘Q’. You can ‘add’ any two points on the curve and get a third point. This means we can do something that looks like addition for points on the elliptic curve. And this means the points on this curve are a group, and we can bring all our group-theory knowledge to studying them. It’s a commutative group, too; ‘P’ added to ‘Q’ leads to the same point as ‘Q’ added to ‘P’.

Let me head off some clever thoughts that make fair objections. What if ‘P’ and ‘Q’ are already reflections, so the line between them is vertical? That never touches the original elliptic curve again, right? Yeah, fair complaint. We patch this by saying that there’s one more point, ‘O’, that’s off “at infinity”. Where is infinity? It’s wherever your vertical lines end. Shut up, this can too be made rigorous. In any case it’s a common hack for this sort of problem. When we add that, everything’s nice. The ‘O’ serves the role in this group that zero serves in arithmetic: the sum of point ‘O’ and any point ‘P’ is going to be ‘P’ again.

Second clever thought to head off: what if ‘P’ and ‘Q’ are the same point? There’s infinitely many lines that go through a single point so how do we pick one to find an intersection with the elliptic curve? Huh? If you did that, then we pick the tangent line to the elliptic curve that touches ‘P’, and carry on as before.

The curved-out less-than-sign shape has a noticeable c-shaped bulge on the end.
y^2 = x^3 + 1 . The water drop is close to breaking off, but surface tension has not yet pinched off the falling form.

There’s more. What kind of number is ‘x’? Or ‘y’? I’ll bet that you figured they were real numbers. You know, ordinary stuff. I didn’t say what they were, so left it to our instinct, and that usually runs toward real numbers. Those are what I meant, yes. But we didn’t have to. ‘x’ and ‘y’ could be in other sets of numbers too. They could be complex-valued numbers. They could be just the rational numbers. They could even be part of a finite collection of possible numbers. As the equation y^2 = x^3 + Ax + B is something meaningful (and some technical points are met) we can carry on. The elliptical curves, and the points we “add” on them, might not look like the curves we started with anymore. They might not look like anything recognizable anymore. But the logic continues to hold. We still create these groups out of the points on these lines intersecting a curve.

By now you probably admit this is neat stuff. You may also think: so what? We can take this thing you never thought about, draw points and lines on it, and make it look very loosely kind of like just adding numbers together. Why is this interesting? No appreciation just for the beauty of the structure involved? Well, we live in a fallen world.

It comes back to number theory. The modern study of Diophantine equations grows out of studying elliptic curves on the rational numbers. It turns out the group of points you get for that looks like a finite collection of points with some collection of integers hanging on. How long that collection of numbers is is called the ‘rank’, and there are deep mysteries at work. We know there are elliptic equations that have a rank as big as 28. Nobody knows if the rank can be arbitrary high, though. And I believe we don’t even know if there are any curves with rank of, like, 27, or 25.

Yeah, I’m still sensing skepticism out there. Fine. We’ll go back to the only part of number theory everybody agrees is useful. Encryption. We have roughly the same goals for every encryption scheme. We want it to be easy to encode a message. We want it to be easy to decode the message if you have the key. We want it to be hard to decode the message if you don’t have the key.

The curved-out sign has a bulge with convex loops to it, so that it resembles the cut of a jigsaw puzzle piece.
y^2 = 3x^2 - 3x + 3 . The water drop is almost large enough that its weight overcomes the surface tension holding it to the main body of water.

Take something inside one of these elliptic curve groups. Especially one that’s got a finite field. Let me call your thing ‘g’. It’s really easy for you, knowing what ‘g’ is and what your field is, to raise it to a power. You can pretty well impress me by sharing the value of ‘g’ raised to some whole number ‘m’. Call that ‘h’.

Why am I impressed? Because if all I know is ‘h’, I have a heck of a time figuring out what ‘g’ is. Especially on these finite field groups there’s no obvious connection between how big ‘h’ is and how big ‘g’ is and how big ‘m’ is. Start with a big enough finite field and you can encode messages in ways that are crazy hard to crack.

We trust. At least, if there are any ways to break the code quickly, nobody’s shared them. And there’s one of those enormous-money-prize awards waiting for someone who does know how to break such a code quickly. (I don’t know which. I’m going by what I expect from people.)

And then there’s fame. These were used to prove Fermat’s Last Theorem. Suppose there are some non-boring numbers ‘a’, ‘b’, and ‘c’, so that for some prime number ‘p’ that’s five or larger, it’s true that a^p + b^p = c^p . (We can separately prove Fermat’s Last Theorem for a power that isn’t a prime number, or a power that’s 3 or 4.) Then this implies properties about the elliptic curve:

y^2 = x(x - a^p)(x + b^p)

This is a convenient way of writing things since it showcases the ap and bp. It’s equal to:

y^2 = x^3 + \left(b^p - a^p\right)x^2 + a^p b^p x

(I was so tempted to leave an arithmetic error in there so I could make sure someone commented.)

A little ball off to the side of a curved-out less-than-sign shape.
y^2 = 3x^3 - 4x . The water drop has broken off, and the remaining surface rebounds to its normal meniscus.

If there’s a solution to Fermat’s Last Theorem, then this elliptic equation can’t be modular. I don’t have enough words to explain what ‘modular’ means here. Andrew Wiles and Richard Taylor showed that the equation was modular. So there is no solution to Fermat’s Last Theorem except the boring ones. (Like, where ‘b’ is zero and ‘a’ and ‘c’ equal each other.) And it all comes from looking close at these neat curves, none of which looks like an ellipse.

They’re named elliptic curves because we first noticed them when Carl Jacobi — yes, that Carl Jacobi — while studying the length of arcs of an ellipse. That’s interesting enough on its own. But it is hard. Maybe I could have fit in that anecdote about giving my class an impossible problem after all.

Reading the Comics, January 11, 2015: Standard Genres And Bloom County Edition


I’m still getting back to normal after the Christmas and New Year’s disruption of, well, everything, which is why I’m taking it easy and just doing another comics review. I have to suppose Comic Strip Master Command was also taking it easy over the holidays since most of the subjects are routine genres — word answer problems, mathematics-connected puns, and the like — with the Bloom County reruns the cartoons that give me most to write about. It’s all part of the wondrous cycle of nature; I’m sure there’ll be a really meaty collection of topics along soon.

Gordon Bess’s Redeye (January 8, originally run August 21, 1968) is an example of the student giving a mischievous answer to a word problem. I feel like I should have a catchy name for this genre, given how much it turns up, but I haven’t got anything good that comes to mind. (I don’t tend to talk about the drawing much in these strips — most of the time it isn’t that important, and comic strips have been growing surprisingly indifferent to drawing — but I did notice while uploading this that Pokey’s stance and expression in the first panel is really quite good. You should be able to open the image in a new tab and see it at its fullest-available 1440-by-431 pixel size and that shows off well the crafting that went into the figure.)

'If you had six apples and I came along and took five of them, what would that leave you with?' 'A Paleface peace treaty?'
Gordon Bess’s Redeye for the 8th of January, 2015; originally run the 21st of August, 1968.

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