The Roots of Cryptography
How cryptography has been manipulated and utilized through both ancient and modern ages.
5 min read
Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash
Cryptography is an important topic when it comes to blockchain development and web3 as a whole. When I was learning cryptography, some questions flashed into my mind and one of them was "How cryptography came out to be what it is?". I got off my feet to start researching on the history of this remarkable piece of technology. By the way, cryptography is a full course in Computer science, but you don't have to worry because I have abstracted the main ideas for this topic. Before we dive in, let'me provide a simple definition of cryptography. Well, cryptography is a branch of mathematics used extensively in computer security, it involves writing codes and ciphers for secure communication. Cryptography means "Secret writing" in Greek, but the study of cryptography is more than secret writing, which is encryption. It also includes digital signatures and data authentication.
How everything started!
Primitive cryptographic techniques are known to have existed in ancient times, and most early civilization appear to have used cryptography to some degree. Symbol replacement, the most basic form of cryptography, appears in both ancient Egyptian and Mesopotamian writings. The earliest known example of this type of cryptography was found in the tomb of an Egyptian noble named Khnumhotep II, who lived approximately 3,900 years ago.
The purpose of symbol replacement in the Khnumhotep inscription was not to conceal information, but to enhance its linguistic appeal. The earliest known example of cryptography being used to protect sensitive information occurred around 3,500 years ago when a Mesopotamain scribe employed cryptography to conceal a formula for pottery glaze, which was used on clay tablets.
By later periods of antiquity, cryptography was widely used to protect important military information, a purpose that it still serves to this day. In the Greek city state of Sparta, messages were encrypted by being written on parchment laid over a cylinder of a particular size, making the message undecipherable until it was wrapped around a similar cylinder by the reciepient. Likewise, spies in ancient India are known to have used coded messages as early as the 2nd century BC.
Perhaps the most advanced cryptography in the ancient world was achieved my the Romans. A prominent example of Roman cryptography, known as the Ceasar cipher, involved shifting the letters of an encrypted message by a certain number of places down the Latin alphabet. Knowing this system and the number of places to shift the letters, a recipient could successfully decode the otherwise illegible message.
Development in the Middle Ages and Renaissance.
Throughout the Middle Ages, cryptography became increasingly important, but substitution ciphers, of which the Caesar cipher is one example, remained the standard. Cryptanalysis, the science by which codes and ciphers are cracked, began to catch up to the still relatively primitive science of cryptography. Al-Kindi, a noted Arab mathematician, developed a technique known as frequency analysis around 800 AD that rendered substitution ciphers vulnerable to decryption. For the first time, people attempting to decipher encrypted messages gained access to a systematic method for doing so, making it necessary for cryptography to advance even further to remain useful.
In 1465, Leone Alberti developed the polyalphabetic cipher, which is considered the solution against Al-Kindi's frequency analysis technique. In a polyalphabetic cipher, a message is encoded using two distinct alphabets. One is the alphabet in which the original message is written, while the second is an entirely different alphabet in which the message appears after being encoded. Combined with traditional substitution ciphers, polyalphabetic ciphers greatly increased the security of encoded information. Unless a reader knew the alphabet in which the message had originally been written, the frequency analysis technique was of no use.
New methods of encoding information were also developed in the Renaissance period, including a popular early method of binary encoding invented by the noted polymath Sir Francis Bacon in 1623.
Advances in Recent Centuries.
The science of cryptography continued to advance progressively throughout the centuries. A breakthrough in cryptography was described, though perhaps never built, by Thomas Jefferson in the 1790s. His invention, known as the cipher wheel, consisted of 36 rings of letters on moving wheels that could be used to achieve complex encoding. This concept was so advanced that it would serve as the basis for American military cryptography until as late as the Second World War.
World War II would also see the perfect example of analog cryptography, known as the Enigma machine. Like the wheel cipher, this device, employed by the Axis powers, used rotating wheels to encode a message, making it virtually impossible to read without another Enigma. Early computer technology was eventually used to help break the Enigma cipher, and the successful decryption of Enigma messages is still considered to be a critical component of the eventual Allied victory.
Cryptography in the Computer Age.
With the rise of computers, cryptography became vastly more advanced than it was in the analog era. 128-bit mathematical encryption, far stronger than any ancient or medieval cipher, is now the standard for many sensitive devices and computer systems. Beginning in 1990, an entirely new form of cryptography, dubbed quantum cryptography, was under development by computer scientists hoping to once again elevate the level of protection offered by modern encryption.
More recently, cryptographic techniques have also been used to make cryptocurrencies possible. Cryptocurrencies leverage several advanced cryptographic techniques, including hash functions, public-key cryptography, and digital signatures. These techniques are used primarily to ensure the security of data stored on blockchains and to authenticate transactions. A specialized form of cryptography, known as an Elliptical Curve Digital Signature Algorithm (ECDSA), underpins Bitcoin and other cryptocurrency systems as a means of providing extra security and ensuring that funds can only be used by their rightful owners.
Cryptography has come a long way in the last 4,000 years, and it isn't likely to stop anytime soon. As long as sensitive data requires protection, cryptography will continue to advance. Although the cryptographic systems used in cryptocurrency blockchains today represent some of the most advanced forms of this science, they are also part of a tradition that extends back through much of human history.