Feeds

Crypto shocker: 'Perfect cipher' dates back to telegraphs

35 years prior to being invented

Choosing a cloud hosting partner with confidence

A computer scientist has unearthed evidence that a theoretically unbreakable form of cryptography was in use by telegraph operators as early as 1882, 35 years before its supposed invention by a duo from Bell Labs and the US Army.

The one-time pad, which is also known as the perfect cipher, uses a random key that is shared by both sender and receiver to encrypt and decode a sensitive message. Assuming the key is used only once and both parties securely dispose of it, the technique is the only known method to perform mathematically unbreakable encryption, according to this post by cryptography historian Dirk Rijmenants. Until now its invention was dated to 1917 and credited to Gilbert Vernam of Bell Labs and Captain Joseph Mauborgne of the Army Signal Corps.

But according to The New York Times, computer scientist Steven Bellovin recently found a description of the one-time pad algorithm in an 1882 telegraphers' codebook titled Telegraphic Code to Insure Privacy and Secrecy in the Transmission of Telegrams. It was written by one Frank Miller, a successful banker from California who went on to become a trustee of Stanford University. He also served in the US Army's inspector general's office, where he worked on a team investigating the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.

"A banker in the West should prepare a list of irregular numbers to be called 'shift numbers,'" Miller wrote. "The difference between such numbers must not be regular. When a shift-number has been applied, or used, it must be erased from the list and not be used again."

The NYT said independent specialists in cryptography have confirmed that Miller's work proves he developed the one-time pad long before its discovery and later patenting by Vernam and Mauborgne.

“Miller probably invented the one-time pad, but without knowing why it was perfectly secure or even that it was,” David Kahn, the author of the 1967 book The Codebreakers, was quoted as saying. “Moreover, unlike Mauborgne’s conscious invention, or the Germans’ conscious adoption of the one-time pad to superencipher their Foreign Office codes, it had no echo, no use in cryptology. It sank without a trace — until Steve found it by accident.”

A PDF of Bellovin's writeup in the July issue of the journal Cryptologia is here. ®

Beginner's guide to SSL certificates

More from The Register

next story
Russian hackers exploit 'Sandworm' bug 'to spy on NATO, EU PCs'
Fix imminent from Microsoft for Vista, Server 2008, other stuff
Microsoft pulls another dodgy patch
Redmond makes a hash of hashing add-on
FYI: OS X Yosemite's Spotlight tells Apple EVERYTHING you're looking for
It's on by default – didn't you read the small print?
'LulzSec leader Aush0k' found to be naughty boy not worthy of jail
15 months home detention leaves egg on feds' faces as they grab for more power
Forget passwords, let's use SELFIES, says Obama's cyber tsar
Michael Daniel wants to kill passwords dead
FBI boss: We don't want a backdoor, we want the front door to phones
Claims it's what the Founding Fathers would have wanted – catching killers and pedos
Kill off SSL 3.0 NOW: HTTPS savaged by vicious POODLE
Pull it out ASAP, it is SWISS CHEESE
prev story

Whitepapers

Forging a new future with identity relationship management
Learn about ForgeRock's next generation IRM platform and how it is designed to empower CEOS's and enterprises to engage with consumers.
Cloud and hybrid-cloud data protection for VMware
Learn how quick and easy it is to configure backups and perform restores for VMware environments.
Three 1TB solid state scorchers up for grabs
Big SSDs can be expensive but think big and think free because you could be the lucky winner of one of three 1TB Samsung SSD 840 EVO drives that we’re giving away worth over £300 apiece.
Reg Reader Research: SaaS based Email and Office Productivity Tools
Read this Reg reader report which provides advice and guidance for SMBs towards the use of SaaS based email and Office productivity tools.
Security for virtualized datacentres
Legacy security solutions are inefficient due to the architectural differences between physical and virtual environments.