A cipher is a secret method of writing, as by code.
Cryptography, in a very broad sense, is the study of techniques
related to aspects of information security. Hence cryptography is concerned
with the writing (ciphering or encoding) and deciphering (decoding) of
messages in secret code. Such considerations emphasize privacy and confidentiality
of information. However, in today's electronic society cryptography has
developed to encompass other features such as data integrity and authentication.
Cryptography has evolved into a mathematical discipline that plays a major
role in business and government.
Cryptography has a long and rich history dating from
the Egyptians some 4000 years ago. A complete non-technical account of
cryptography from antiquity through the early 1960's is given in Kahn's
The Codebreakers . It relates historical aspects which were most
significant to the development of modern cryptography, including developments
related to the two world wars. For a concise summary of important developments
in the 1970's and their relation to cryptography today see pp. 1-6, in
An overview of transposition and substitution
A transposition cipher is an encoding process
that does not change any of the letters of the original message,
but changes the position of the letters. (Cryptographers use the term "plaintext"
for the original message.) One simple transposition cipher reverses the
order of the letters. For example, the message THE GAME IS AFOOT becomes
encoded as EHT EMAG SI TOOFA. Such "backward writing" is easy to recognize
and decode. There are a number of other easy transposition ciphers discussed
in  and . By analogy, transposition ciphers are like jigsaw puzzles.
All the pieces are present, its just a matter of putting them in the correct
A substitution cipher is an encoding process
that maintains the order of the letters in the message, but changes their
identity. Each letter of the message is replaced by another letter or symbol.
For example, Morse code is a substitution cipher in which each letter is
replaced by a specific set of dots and dashes. Many substitution ciphers
use only one alphabet, and are called "monoalphabetic". This means that
we substitute one and only one letter for a particular letter in
the message. For example, every T in the message is replaced by the
same substitute letter or symbol. Such a cipher scheme is easy to remember,
but is also vulnerable to "cracking" using frequency analysis (letter counting).
Given a sufficiently large encoded message derived using a monoalphabetic
substitution cipher, it can readily be "cracked" by comparing the frequency
of letter occurrences in the coded message with the frequency of letter
occurrences in the language used for the message.
Example 1. A well-known type of substitution
cipher is called a shift cipher or Caesar cipher. A key number k is agreed
upon by the sender and the receiver. Then the standard alphabet is shifted
k positions so that the k-th letter in the alphabet is substituted for
letter A, the k+1st for B, etc and we wrap the alphabet to maintain a one-to-one
correspondence. Suppose k = 7, then the resulting shifted cipher is given
by the correspondence that starts with A replaced by G as shown in Figure
Using this cipher the message CONVOY
PROCEED becomes IUTBUE VXUIKKJ.
In order to make substitution ciphers more secure,
more than one alphabet can be used. Such ciphers are called polyalphabetic,
which means that the same letter of a message can be represented by different
letters when encoded. Such a one-to-many correspondence makes the use of
frequency analysis much more difficult in order to crack the code. We describe
one such cipher named for
de Vigenere a 16-th century Frenchman.
The Vigenere Cipher
The Vigenere cipher is a polyalphabetic cipher
based on using successively shifted alphabets, a different shifted alphabet
for each of the 26 English letters. The procedure is based on the tableau
shown in Figure 2 and the use of a keyword. The letters of the keyword
determine the shifted alphabets used in the encoding process.
Example 2. For the message COMPUTING GIVES
INSIGHT and keyword LUCKY we proceed by repeating the keyword as many times
as needed above the message, as follows.
Method #1. The Vigenere tableau in Figure 2 can
be used directly. For each letter of the message use the letter of the
keyword to determine a row and go across the row to the column headed by
the corresponding letter of the message. We illustrate this row-column
look-up in Figure 3 for the first two letters of the message. The red arrows
indicate the encoding of the first letter C and the green arrows the encoding of
the second letter O. It follows that the first two letters "CO" in the
message are encoded as "NI".
Method #2. We use the shifted alphabets that
start with the letters of the keyword. We extract these shifted alphabets from
Figure 2 in the order indicated by the numbered arrows in Figure 4a. This group
of alphabets is repeated as many times as needed to assign an alphabet to each
letter of the message. We append a standard alphabet at the top of this set of
shifted alphabets to produce the Code Table that
appears in Figure 4b.
Using the letters of the message in order we substitute
the letter in the shifted alphabet associated with the letter of the keyword
that appears immediately above it by going across to the column headed
by that letter in the code table. To encode the first letter C we use the
row of the code indicated by the arrow and the column indicated by the
arrow; see Figure 5. Hence the letter N is substituted for C.
The next letter to be encoded is O. We now use the
second shifted alphabet from the code table and the column headed by the
letter O. See the arrows in Figure 6.
Continuing in this way using either method we find
the encoded message that appears in Figure 7.
Note that the letter I in the message correspond
to four different letters in the encoded message. Also in the encoded message
the letter E was substituted for two different letters of the original
message. Such many-to-one substitutions make letter frequency counting
much more difficult.
When the encoded message is received it must be decoded.
We start the same way we did to encode; repeat the keyword as many times
as needed above the encoded message. The decoding procedure is just the
reverse of encoding. Either the Vigenere tableau in Figure 2 or the Coding
Table in Figure 4b can be used to decode. To decode code a message using
the Vigenere tableau we proceed as follows.
Example 3. Again let our keyword be LUCKY and
let the encoded message be XUVRGDYXOPJQJOPP. Using Figure 2 we column-row
look-up as described above to decode the first four letters a MATH. What
is the remainder of the message?
Go across the top row to the column headed
by the letter in the keyword. Now go down that column until you come to
the corresponding letter in the encoded message. The correct letter in
the original message is found by proceeding to the left across the row
containing the letter in the encoded message.
To decode a message using the Coding Table in Figure
5 we use a letter of the keyword to determine a row, move across that row
until we find the letter of the encoded message and then go up the column
to find the letter in the original message. Try this procedure with the
encoded message in Example 3.
Cracking the Vigenere Cipher
For 300 years the Vigenere cipher was considered
to be practically unbreakable. Then in 1863 a Prussian military officer
devised a method to determine the length of the keyword and then divide
the message into a simpler form to which letter frequency analysis could
be applied. For further information see the URLs given in  and .
We will not pursue this topic here.
Software for the Vigenere Cipher
A visual basic routine for encoding and decoding
is available for downloading by clicking on VBVigenere.ZIP.
Figure 8 shows the nice interface for this routine which was supplied
by Faith Chao (Golden Gate University). Faith uses this routine as part
of a unit on 'Codes, Coding, and Cryptography' in a course for Computer
and Information Science majors. The course is 15 weeks and each week she
gives the students a set of PowerPoint slides which summarize the material
covered. Her visual basic routine can be accessed from PowerPoint. Figure
9 shows the visual basic screen once keyword has been entered; note the
shifted alphabets as used in the Code Table in Figure 4b.
There are a number of Java applet implementations
available for the Vigenere Cipher. See  and . The applet in
 shows the step-by-step construction of the encoded message while that
in  just takes the keyword and the original message and then displays
the encoded message as is done in the visual basic routine discussed above.
The alphabets used in  and  are different from those used in the
development in this demo, hence the message will be encoded a bit
An interactive Vigenere cipher routine is available
in MATLAB, just click on ventable.ZIP. In this
routine the code table of Figure 4b is used. The user must position and
click a mouse over the correct substitution for each letter of the message.
The interactive encoding screen is shown in Figure 10. This routine was
written by David R. Hill.
 D. Kahn, The Codebreakers, Macmillan Publishing
 A. Menezes, P. van Oorschot, and S. Vanstone,
Handbook of Applied Cryptography, CRC Press, 1997.
 M. Gardner, Codes, Ciphers, and Secret Writing,
Dover Publications, Inc., 1972.
 L. Smith, Cryptography the Science of Secret
Writing, Dover Publications, Inc., 1943.
Credits: The idea
for this demo was submitted by
The visual basic routine is included in Demos
with Positive Impact with her permission.
Department of Mathematics
Golden Gate University