Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Secret Signals

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Secret Signals

Article excerpt

You already know some codes, believe it or not. A red light on a traffic signal means "stop." Yellow means "caution," and green means "go!" That's part of the "traffic code," which is no secret.

But can you figure this out?

!sedoc tuoba si yrots sihT Sure you can. Try reading it backward, starting at the right. Welcome to the secret world of murky messages! Throughout history, governments, armies, and, of course, spies have used many ways to communicate secretly. So have schoolchildren. My friends and I used to be devotees of "pig Latin," a spoken "code" designed to baffle fellow students and grown-ups. Here's how: Put the first letter of each word at the end of the word. Then add "ay" to it. So "class" becomes: "lass-cay"; "pencil" is "encil-pay." My friend Bill was "ill-Bay," and so on. We started out speaking slowly, but after some practice, we became fluent and easily understood one another. Others did not. Sometimes a message can be a code even if you think you understand it. A 1941 radio-broadcast message "East wind rain, north wind cloudy, west wind clear," sounded like a weather report. But it alerted Japanese diplomats around the world that Japan was about to attack the United States at Pearl Harbor. Other messages are sent by replacing the letters in a word with other letters or symbols. This is called a "cipher" (SIGH-fer). "Meet me after school," might be written: XPPE XPLQ ECDN SZZW, or even 14 5 5 20 14 5 1 6 20 5 18 19 3 8 15 15 12. The code wheel on the facing page is a cipher code. It was perfected in the mid-1400s by the Italian architect Leon Alberti, "the father of Western cryptology." Cryptology (crip-TOL-uh-gee) is the science of secret communications. Let's take a short tour of its history with David Kahn, a historian and an expert on codes, who points to many instances in which secret messages played a critical role. In 1556, English spies intercepted messages sent by Mary, Queen of Scots. The coded letters were deciphered by Thomas Phelippes, England's first great cryptologist (code expert). The messages described a plot to kill Queen Elizabeth I. Mary was imprisoned and executed, and England's throne was saved. …

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