History of Encryption

Historical Uses of Encryption

In ancient times the ability to encrypt military communications played a significant role in the success of military campaigns waged by various city-states or countries seeking to gain or maintain regional dominance.  The science of cryptology, in essence, is the study of codes and cipher devices used to create and decipher codes. The word cryptology comes from the Greek root for “hidden meaning.”

In the early 5th century B.C. rulers of Sparta, which was the predominant military power of ancient Greece, employed an ingenious cipher device called a scytale to encrypted military communication between government officials and generals executing their military agenda. Sparta was a militaristic Greek city-state with coveted military operational secrets which their enemies would try to obtain. Therefore, the rulers of Sparta needed to employ the latest secure encryption technology to protect vital military secrets and communications from enemy spies seeking to obtain Sparta’s military secrets for their respective governments.

As in all military campaigns communications between government officials and those executing the military campaigns are vital. The interception of military communications by the enemy could prove disastrous. Therefore, every effort was put forth by Spartan officials to protect communications to their commanders in the field.

Enemy states would go to great lengths to secure military secrets which could be used against perceived aggressors. Securing military intelligence by using spies is common practice during military campaigns, even today. Sparta’s rulers were pioneers in using encryption techniques to ensure their military secrets stayed secret.

Sparta developed a ciphering device called a scytale. This was a baton shaped object with a long sheet of parchment papered wrapped around in a spiraling pattern.  A Spartan official or commander would write a message along the length of the baton. The unwrapped parchment paper would render the message into an unintelligible or scrambled message which could now be safely transported via courier to the intended general in command. If by any chance the message was intercepted by enemy agents, the message on the parchment paper could not be read or decipher because a specific key was required to successfully decode the hidden message. The key was only known by person sending the message and the person receiving the message.

The key, in this case, was a baton of exact shape and dimensions of the original baton used to create the message.  When the message was received, by the intended party, they simply wrapped the parchment around their baton or (key) revealing the encrypted message which was now decoded and easily read.

The scytale is the first known use of transposition, a classic encryption technique. Transposition uses permutations or algorithms to determine specific arrangements of alpha numeric characters to encode a message. For example, the letter “A” could equal “C”, while the letter “C” equals “A” and the letter “U” equals “T”. Therefore, ACU decoded yields CAT. Numbers could also be used as substitutes for each letter of the alphabet. The transposing of characters can be very simple or complex depending on the mathematical algorithm used to encode the message.

Transposing alpha numeric characters is only one method of encrypting data or communications. During ancient times transposition was considered cutting edge technology. Sparta’s rulers understood the importance of protecting and maintaining military secrets. No expense was spared in the development of more sophisticated methods of protecting their military intelligence.

The scytale, though seemingly crude by current standards, severed its purpose well because Sparta’s enemies could not easily decipher their military communications. Information is power and Sparta’s enemies’ deployed spies and other methods in attempts to secure Sparta’s military secrets. Obtaining military secrets from an enemy or aggressor could be the difference between conquering an enemy or subjugation.

In the modern age of advanced computer power, fueled by powerful microchip technology, the necessity to protect sensitive or confidential information is extremely important. In the information age digital data flowing through the internet stored on massive hard drives or personal computers is fodder which feeds our technological society.  Keeping and maintaining the integrity of information, digital data or otherwise is vital. The interception or misuse use of information could potential lead to disastrous consequences whether on a government, corporate or individual level.  Issue of protecting privacy has never been more important.


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