A (Caesar) Shift for the Traditional Classroom

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Cryptography (the study of “secret writing”) might be a topic you’d hear about in the halls of MIT, the Naval Academy, or training sites at Langley.

Here at Queens University of Charlotte, students are getting a taste of the basics of secret writing, codes, and ciphers using Simon Singh’s popular The Code Book as a guide.

Over the course of the semester, in Dr. John A. McArthur’s freshman exploration seminar course (aptly titled “Puzzled”) students study, decipher, and encipher messages of their own, and connect their learning to current digital encryption strategies.

Go ahead. Ask any student in the class to define monoalphabetic substitution cipher. They should be able to tell you about the ways the substitution ciphers work and why the Caesar shift cipher is a foundational element of modern cryptography.

In case you can’t find one of these students, you might like to know that a substitution cipher simply replaces individual letters with other letters in a routine pattern to make a message indiscernible. The Caesar shift is one pattern for enciphering texts that comes with a simple key (pictured) allowing the bearer to easily decipher the message. Because of its functional simplicity, the Caesar shift cipher lays the groundwork for much of encryption technology, including the enigma machine and later variations of mechanized cryptography. And today, whether we like it or not, we interact with encryption all of the time – every time we send an email, login to our mobile banking, perform a Google search, or scan a fingerprint to unlock our iPhone.

Hopefully for students in this class, the discussion of encryption and ciphertexts develops into an understanding of how both apply to our every day lives in the problems that we face, not only digitally but also in our lived experiences.

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