What It's Like to be a Cryptographer
Photograph by Kevin A. Roberts
When Elonka Dunin isn’t working for area video-game firm Simutronics (play.net), she’s indulging her passion for secret codes. Her knack for cryptography has resulted in two books, including The Mammoth Book of Secret Codes and Cryptograms; speaking engagements with the National Security Agency; friendships with hackers; and having a character named after her in a Dan Brown novel.
What is cryptography?
Cryptography is a way of hiding messages. It comes from the Greek terms for “hidden” and “writing.” Messages are hidden in three ways: substitution, transposition, and concealment. The most common way people might think of code is alphabet substitution. By advancing the letters one down in the alphabet, “cat” becomes “dbu.” If you know the code, you can decipher the message. The sender encrypts, and the receiver decrypts. A good code can be used in wartime conditions—it’s something that the recipient can easily decrypt, but if someone else is listening or trying to read it, they cannot.
How did you get interested in codes and codebreaking?
I’ve always been interested in codes, since I was a little girl. I remember there was a neighbor boy studying codes for some reason, and I asked him so many questions that he gave me his books and notes just to get rid of me. [Laughs] There’s an affinity between mathematics and codes, and I come from a long line of mathematicians.
Where do we see codes being used in everyday life?
You may not see them, but you use them on a daily basis. Every time you use an ATM, when you put your card in the machine, the info on the magnetic strip is decrypted by a computer and communicated to the banks. These are very sophisticated computer encryption systems that involve multiplication and division by very large prime numbers, like numbers with 100 digits. Then, also, every daily newspaper has some sort of an encrypted puzzle like the scrambled letters [the “Jumble”] or the “Cryptoquip.” Or maybe as a child you wrote with lemon juice or onion juice, and it was invisible until someone held the paper over a candle and it turned brown. That’s concealment. One of the most famous examples of a concealment code is from a couple thousand years ago when a king needed to send a messenger across enemy lines, so he shaved the guys head, tattooed the message on the man’s scalp, waited for the hair to grow back, and sent him across enemy lines, and the recipient shaved the messenger’s head to read the message.
Do you have to be a genius to work with codes?
Anyone can handle simple ciphers. Edgar Allan Poe in his newspaper column said he could solve any cipher, within certain limitations, and he could. He had said that the ciphers had to be only simple substitutions, though. Kids can do simple codes by wrapping a strip of paper around a pencil and then writing on it, or moving the alphabet ahead by a few letters. During World War 2 the Germans were using a cipher system called Enigma, and the British set up this facility called Bletchley Park, where they cracked codes. They needed lots of people to work there, so they put codes and puzzles in the magazines in England. They said, “if you can solve them, let us know, you can help the war effort.” All kinds of people came in to help, people with that kind of mind.
You’re considered one of the world’s foremost experts on a copper sculpture with a long message in secret code on it, located inside CIA headquarters in Virginia, called Kryptos. What’s the story there?
I had heard about it, and I happened to be in Washington, D.C. visiting my cousin. We found our way to the CIA, but they wouldn’t let us in to see it. That kind of sparked my interest. It became a challenge. A sculpture that’s a coded enigma, at the center of CIA headquarters—that makes it very intriguing. So I said to myself, how can I get in there and see Kryptos? I’d been hearing rumors that Al Qaeda had been using codes to plan 9-11 called steganography. That’s a way of hiding codes in images on the Internet. I thought maybe I could come and give a talk to the FBI about steganography. So I put together this huge 70-slide PowerPoint presentation, and it went well. So then I thought, maybe I can give this talk on site at the CIA, too. Later, I gave a talk at a hacker convention called DEF CON in Las Vegas, and I said to the crowd, “I would really like to get inside CIA headquarters and look at Kryptos.” After the talk, a guy came up to me and said, “I work at Langley. I think I can get you in.” He said he was an undercover CIA agent at DEF CON. He would only give me his first name. Afterward, I didn’t know if he was pulling my chain or not. Later on, he called me, and he was for real. He eventually got me in, and I finally got to see the sculpture, but they wouldn’t let me take pictures of it. They did let me take rubbings, which I posted online. Then I started getting emails from others, and eventually, I came to be considered an expert on it, and I’m even friends with the sculptor now. It was just another example of someone telling me I couldn’t do something, so then of course, I had to go out and do it.
And the secret code on Kryptos has been deciphered?
Yes, three of the four parts of the sculpture were cracked in 1999. The last 97 characters have not been solved, after more than twenty years.
You were consulted on the Ricky McCormick case?
Not by the cops, but by the local TV news. This was a guy whose murdered body was found by the St. Charles police in 1999, in a cornfield near West Alton. About 11 years later, the FBI posted encrypted messages found on notes in his pocket, on their site, to see if anyone could crack the code. The challenge really sparked people’s imaginations all over the world. The case is still unsolved. The local news interviewed me about it this year.
Dan Brown, the author of The Da Vinci Code, named a character after you in one of his books?
When Dan Brown needed help researching his latest novel, The Lost Symbol, he called me, and then he wound up naming a character in it after me. Her name is “Nola Kaye,” sort of an anagram of “Elonka.” Now they’re making a movie about The Lost Symbol to come out in 2012, and I keep asking Dan who gets to play me in the movie. I told him I should be played by Angelina Jolie. I think she captures my essence. [Laughs]
Can you do the “Jumble” or the “Cryptoquip” in the newspaper lightning-fast?
Sometimes. Sometimes I’ll do one after a lecture and autograph it, and sometimes I’ll even autograph it in code.
You have a great page about unsolved codes at your site.
Often if there’s an unsolved code, it’s because the person who did it made a mistake. Often when I’m trying to solve it, I ask myself what kind of a mistake might he have made, and go from there.
How does cryptography relate to your job as a video game designer?
Encryption is definitely a part of video games because you want to hide the mechanisms of the game. Someone interested in cheating might want to hack the game to they can up their score or give themselves infinite ammunition. But I don’t get into the nitty-gritty of that, personally, because we use digital systems. My real fondness for codes is for the kind where I can get out a pencil and a piece of paper and figure it out by hand.
You’ve discussed codes and code breaking on TV a few times?
The PBS “NOVA Science Now” segment on Kryptos from 2007 is the one that I’m most proud of.
I understand you contribute a lot of entries to Wikipedia. In fact, you’re among the top 200 contributors. What sorts of subjects do you like best?
Medieval history, especially the Knights Templar, the Mongol empire, jazz musicians, and a famous aircraft called the White Bird, which attempted a Transatlantic crossing two weeks before Lindbergh did it in the ‘20s, and went missing. I feel like I’m writing things that are useful to the world.