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Dumb Things I’ve Done in the Name of Crypto (part 1)

Let’s just begin with the obvious. I’m an idiot. Fortunately, (I believe) that I’m less of an idiot now than I was over a decade ago. I mean, I see why this stuff is dumb, so that has to count for something, right? I sleep better at night believing that that is the case.

I’ve always been fascinated by security and encoded/encrypted messages ever since I was little, even before I was interested in programming computers. I used to play the game Hacker on my Commodore 64 and pretend that was me doing things for real. I used to pretend that I was a spy who could get into anything. I used to make up “unbreakable” secret codes so that my friends and I could pass “secret messages” at drops around the neighborhood and school. You get the point.

Well, as soon as I learned anything about programming when I was older, one of the first things I did was “invent” a way to encode messages back and forth. I decided to take a page out of the old A=1, B=2 code book and use the ASCII values for characters. The problem was that if they were left as a string of 2 and 3 digit numbers, it would soon become obvious what they were. I decided that I would just mash them all together and make one long string of numbers to kind of disguise what they were (yay, security through obscurity!).

My first issue was that while A is 65 and Z is 90, a is 97 and z is 122. I can’t easily figure out from a long string of numbers how they should be chunked. I needed them to always be available in a predictable chunk. I figured out that if I multiplied the ASCII value by 4, every character that I cared about would become a 3 digit number. Finally, I had my chunking.

I created a VB6 program that had two textboxes and two associated buttons that encoded and decoded messages for you. I don’t have the source code for that program handy (I’m sure it is on a backup somewhere), but it was easy enough to recreate the important methods here below:

The results of running that program are here:

The results of my encoding/decoding program.

You see that it basically works as advertised. I used it over IM with my brother-in-law a few times to prove the concept and was pretty happy with myself for the results.

Any of you who have your thinking caps on are already starting to see several problems here. If someone got ahold of the program, they could try some things to see if there is a predictable pattern and there is. For instance, A always shows up as 260. Once you know that, you can easily figure out any message with a simple decoder key. You don’t even need a computer at any point. Even if you don’t know that, the encoded messages are still vulnerable (for that reason) to frequency analysis and every other basic code breaking trick.

Pretty harmless exercise as it stands now, but next time I’ll cover how I parlayed this into something that was actually colossally stupid.

Part 2 is located here