Instant expert: Cryptology and coding

December 2, 2005

Tenth Institute of Mathematics and its Applications (IMA) International Conference of Cryptography and Coding, Royal Agricultural College, Cirencester, December 19-21.

IMA members: £225
Non-members: £305
Students: £170

What is it?

This is all about making and breaking codes and the mathematics underpinning such efforts to conceal and reveal data. This isn't just James Bond stuff, but the everyday business of securely exchanging and storing information, whether it be financial data for banks or privacy for mobile phone users.

As a pointer, the co-sponsors are the information and communications giants Hewlett-Packard and Vodafone.

Blum-Blum-Shub anyone?

The subjects up for discussion could be mistaken for code. How about "Concrete security of the Blum-Blum-Shub pseudorandom generator". Or if you want something to make you nervous at night, what about an "Attack on the perturbed Matsumoto-Imai cryptosystem"?

And if you really want things spelt out, Tuvi Etzion is going to talk about "Correction of two-dimensional cluster errors". Don't you hate it when that happens?

Code of practice:

If you want to sound like you know what you're talking about in codes, use as many compressed phrases as possible. For instance, there's a whole afternoon devoted to "symmetric crypto" and another to "signcryption".

And if you're troubled by "probabilistic algebraic attacks", maybe afterwards you can relax with some "hash-based digital signature schemes". Delicious.

Keep it belted:

One of the first recorded uses of a coded message was in 405BC, when Lysander of Sparta received a belt covered in apparently random letters. But when the belt was fastened around a wooden baton, and the letters were correctly aligned, it spelt out a warning about an attack by the Persians.

The word "cryptography" was used as far back as the mid-17th century.

And that Blum-Blum-Shub?

It's an algorithm that generates a sequence of numbers that are approaching but are not truly random. It is meant to be a secure form of encryption.

Conference venue:

An agricultural college in the Cotswolds, looking rather like an Oxford college surrounded by farmland, which offers its buildings for the conference, receptions and the weddings circuit. Residential costs are between £75 and £95, including dinner, bed and breakfast.

Careless talk:

If someone asks you about "entropic attack" don't assume it's something they caught from the conference dinner. It's the starting point for tackling a coded message, based on recognising common word patterns and letters.

The code crackers might start by trying to identify the most common letter, "e", then work on the vowels and common words such as "the" and "and", gradually unravelling enough of the code for the message to become apparent.

Code book:

To avoid looking very cheesy, don't bring anything by Robert Harris. And don't even chance an ironic question about whether anyone has cracked the Da Vinci Code. But what are the odds that everyone has a Su Doku bumper edition packed with their pyjamas?

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