FBI: How to be an expert at the black art of cryptography

FBI, NSA employ cryptanalysis to prevent, solve crimes

Breaking written codes is seemingly a black art whose history dates back as long as people could write and wanted to keep secrets.  In the age of supercomputers and all manner of advanced technologies it's hard to imagine much cryptography expertise is still needed.  The FBI would tell you differently.

The FBI this week issued a release talking up its status as the world's premier cryptographic experts saying: "Breaking such codes is the FBI's Cryptanalysis and Racketeering Records Unit unique specialty. Despite the FBI's extensive use of state-of-the-art computer technology to gather intelligence, examine evidence, and help solve crimes, the need to manually break "pen and paper" codes remains a valuable-and necessary-weapon in the bureau's investigative arsenal."

More on career choices: Having a career year? 15 career issues you should know about

According to the FBI criminals who use cryptography-codes, ciphers, and concealed messages-are abundant. "Terrorists, gang members, inmates, drug dealers, violent lone offenders, and organized crime groups involved in gambling and prostitution use letters, numbers, symbols, and even invisible ink to encode messages in an attempt to hide illegal activity," the FBI stated.

So what does it take to become one of these cryptographic specialist, at the FBI anyway? A basic four-month training course and plenty of continuing education to learn the age-old patterns and techniques of code makers, the FBI says. 

Indeed the field of cryptanalysis remains a viable career choice.  Just this week the National Security Agency said it was looking to hire Cryptanalysts

Form the post: Cryptanalysis is the analytic investigation of an information system with the goal of illuminating hidden aspects of that system. It encompasses any systematic analysis aimed at discovering features in, understanding aspects of, or recovering hidden parameters from an information system. Cryptanalysis is one of the core technical disciplines necessary for the National Security Agency (NSA) to accomplish its mission and provide critical intelligence to the nation's leaders, and the need for Cryptanalysts will remain constant in our ever-changing global environment.

Almost anyone can learn basic code-breaking skills (see sidebar), but certain personality types seem best suited to the job, including those who like solving puzzles and who are determined and tenacious, said Dan Olson, chief of Cryptanalysis and Racketeering Records Unit, which is part of the FBI's Laboratory Division.

According to the FBI, breaking any code involves four basic steps:

1. determining the language used;

2. determining the system used;

3. reconstructing the key; and

4. reconstructing the plaintext.

Consider this cipher: Nffu nf bu uif qbsl bu oppo.

Now apply the four steps:

1. Determining the language allows you to compare the cipher text to the suspected language. Our cryptanalysts usually start with English.

2. Determining the system: Is this cipher using rearranged words, replaced words, or perhaps letter substitution? In this case, it's letter substitution.

3. Reconstructing the key: This step answers the question of how the code maker changed the letters. In our example, every character shifted one letter to the right in the alphabet.

4. Reconstructing the plaintext: By applying the key from the previous step, you now have a solution: Meet me at the park at noon.

Follow Michael Cooney on Twitter: nwwlayer8  

Layer 8 Extra

Check out these other hot stories:

US slowly, very slowly oozes rare earth assault

NASA star-gazer satellite recovers from 144-hour network glitch

Google Voice gets into Sprint Mobile phones

Gigantic changes keep space technology hot

NASA satellite goes where no other spacecraft has gone before: Mercury orbit

NASA satellite snaps rare cloud-free emerald Ireland

FTC wins largest civil penalty on nasty debt collector: $2.8M

Time travel theory may find home in Large Hadron Collider

DHS chief Napolitano: Algorithms a big key in security, Big Data puzzle

FTC to take a closer look at debt collectors' use of high-tech tools

20 hot IT security issues

NASA eyes prototype system to control drones in national airspace

Lights, camera, Big Blue: IBM going Hollywood for 100th birthday

Join the Network World communities on Facebook and LinkedIn to comment on topics that are top of mind.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.