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The Hindu Article

From 2 November, 2002 – The Hindu.

The world’s ‘toughest’ unbreakable code, created by a UK-Indian expert was cracked last month, only days before the biggest hacking effort ever breached Microsoft’s defences.
Anand Parthasarathy explores the security options for an Internet environment under increasing attack.

A SECRET CODE, said to be the toughest public challenge ever, set by a UK-based Indian expert, has been cracked last month by a team of Swedish programmers. Dr. Simon Singh, author of a popular book on cryptography, entitled The Code Book, which reviews the long history of secret codes and ciphers, included a challenge to readers: a set of ten encrypted puzzles using the best of current and classical computer techniques. His publishers offered a prize of 10,000 pounds sterling (Rs. 7 lakhs) to the first reader to crack the code.

Almost a year after the book was published in October 1999 – and became a global bestseller in hard cover and paperback – a group of Swedish computer buffs, submitted their solution which author Singh (a Ph.D. in Particle Physics from Cambridge University whose parents hail from Punjab and settled in the U.K. in 1950), declared a winner.

The challenge included cipher techniques dating back to ancient Greece and India – and the famous “Enigma” code that the Germans used in World War II, featured in the recent Hollywood movie “U -571” – as well as the latest methods used to provide secrecy for Net transactions. “It is the toughest code that has been ever cracked!”, Dr. Singh conceded, when he handed over the prize cheque to the Swedish fivesome on October 12.

Last week, the Swedes: Fredrik Almgren, Gunnar Andersson, Torbjorn Granland, Lars Ivansson and Staffan Ulfberg, published their methodology and solution on the Internet (at http://codebook.org/codebook-solution.html) and included details about the toughest part – the final hurdle which involved a 512-bit code (in comparison, a 128-bit code is considered adequate for most e-biz applications).

Dr. Singh who served earlier as producer-director for the BBC TV science programmes “Horizon” and “Tomorrow’s World” has now converted his book into a 5 part TV documentary currently airing on Britain’s Channel 4. He has his own website, www.simonsingh.com where details of both book and serial can be found. The TV version of “The Code Book”, entitled “The Science of Secrecy” was published last fortnight.

The Kamasutra connection

In his researches into classic coding techniques, Dr. Singh discovered that the Indian classic, Kamasutra including one of the earliest techniques for rendering messages unreadable – using the “substitution” method that remained a standard technique well into the 20th century. If an alphabet of 26 letters is substituted with other letters, says Singh, the chance of deciphering all the letters is 400 million billion billion – or virtually impossible. The technique was safe enough for a man in Vatsyayana’s time, to communicate with his paramour – without her spouse tumbling to the liaison. And for decades the substitution cryptogram remained an uncrackable code – until technology caught up. Today computers routinely use the frequency analysis of individual letters to crack most such codes ( In English, the letter E is the most frequently used).

Dr. Singh was asked by the (London) Daily Telegraph newspaper to set a classical puzzle and last month he created one based on the Kamasutra model. Nearly 5000 readers cracked the code within days.The author who earlier wrote another popular book on “Fermat’s Last Theorem”, admits that his challenge involved the sort of techniques used for Internet security today, but does not feel that Net secrecy is under threat. After all, it took five persons a year and the equivalent of 70 years of computer time on a Compaq machine to solve it, using a special “sieving” approach they designed, he says. A thief trying to break a credit card number will not find it worth his while.