Encryption through the ages | Brunswick Group

Encryption through the ages

As long as there has been valuable and sensitive information, people have been trying to steal it.

A pictorial series that takes a look at encryption and security


According to Roman historian Suetonius, Julius Caesar (100–44 BC) protected his military messages by using the “Caesar cipher.” Primitive by today’s standards, the code relied on shifting letters three places forward or backward in the alphabet. It is likely to have been reasonably secure because many of Caesar’s enemies were illiterate.

The Kama Sutra (language of love)

One wouldn’t expect to encounter encryption in the Kama Sutra. The ancient instructional guide to the art of lovemaking was put together by Hindu philosopher Vatsyayana, believed to have lived around the 2nd century. One section of the book lists 64 arts that an ideal lover should master. Number 44 is mlecchita vikalpa, or “the art of understanding writing in cypher and the writing of words in a peculiar way.” Presumably this technique allowed lovers to communicate in secret. 

Al-Kindi (pattern recognition)

The 9th century Iraqi polymath Abu Yusuf Ya‘qub ibn Ishaq Al- Kindi, commonly known as Al-Kindi, pioneered frequency analysis, a powerful codebreaking technique. Certain letters and spelling constructions occur more often than others. A symbol that appears most often in a coded message is likely to correspond to the letter most commonly used in that language’s alphabet, and so on. Frequency analysis went on to be used to crack codes in many languages for centuries afterwards. Syria is one of many countries to release a postage stamp honoring Al-Kindi. 

Colossus (code breaker)

Colossus was the name given to computers built by the British during World War II to decode the Lorenz cipher, a code used by senior German officers that was even more complicated than Enigma, which Alan Turing had helped solve. Lorenz was first compromised by human error (see “The heart rules the head”). Colossus went on to analyze and decipher massive volumes of coded messages. Designed by Thomas H. Flowers, who was influenced by Turing’s work, Colossus is considered the first large-scale electronic computer – before that, machines had been solely electro-mechanical. Pictured above, Royal Naval personnel operate a Colossus computer in 1943 in Bletchley Park, British code breaker HQ.

The floppy disk (data goes portable)

First sold in 1971, the floppy disk transformed data sharing. The earliest floppies were a cumbersome 8x8 inches, but suddenly data was portable, accessible – and easy to steal. Smaller sizes followed. Most were replaced by CDs and, later, USB flash drives – but not all. A report by the US Government Accountability Office recently revealed that the Department of Defense was still using 8-inch floppy disks to “coordinate the operational functions of the United States’ nuclear forces.” This veteran technology is scheduled to be retired by the end of 2017.

Typewriters (pulling the plug)

Some have suggested that the best way to make a computer secure is to unplug it. In the wake of embarrassing and even dangerous leaks, some governments have explored that strategy. In 2012, Russia’s Federal Protective Service, a government body tasked with security, spent 486,540 rubles ($15,000) buying 20 typewriters to help prevent leaks of important documents. In a 2014 interview, a member of the German government said it was considering similar measures. As fans of Cold War spy novels can attest, typewriters do not prevent data being stolen, but filing cabinets full of papers can’t be compromised with a single mouse click.

Hacktivism (breaking into pop culture)

Not all hackers are after money or sensitive information. Many businesses and governments find themselves targeted by “hacktivists” – attackers whose actions are politically motivated. These polarizing figures have also broken into pop culture. In 2014, actress Alyssa Milano published Hacktivist, a graphic novel that “questions the difference between good and evil in the age of technology.” A year later, the TV show Mr. Robot premiered; its main character is a self-described “vigilante hacker.”

Watson (the next line of defense?)

Watson, the artificial intelligence technology developed by IBM, analyzes massive amounts of “unstructured” data – such as the blogs, videos, white papers, research reports and alerts that make up about 80 percent of the internet – to learn about and solve complex problems. Its huge brainpower has previously been applied to subjects ranging from healthcare to education and now, in partnership with eight universities, Watson will tackle cybersecurity. Once up to speed, it will interpret and bring context to this data and provide insights and recommendations to all levels of the cybersecurity industry, from novice analysts to the most advanced experts. “We’re not going to stop the bad guys,” says IBM’s Charles Palmer, “but now we have a new lever to keep up … and maybe get ahead of them.”

Panama Papers (private to public)

In an audacious leak that revealed the offshore bank accounts of business figures, celebrities and world leaders, more than 11.5 million documents held by Panama-based law firm Mossack Fonseca were divulged to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists in early 2016. The documents – roughly 10 million more than were revealed by Edward Snowden – are still being reviewed, but have already made an impact. Iceland’s Prime Minister Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson stepped down after his holdings were published, while some of the world’s largest banks are being investigated. The source of the leak has used encryption to remain anonymous.