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Software Design and Implementation

A13: Copiale Cipher

Translation algorithms used to crack centuries-old code

Read the following article published on 25 October 25, 2011  by by Mark Brown


Computer scientists from Sweden and the United States have applied modern-day, statistical translation techniques -- the sort of which that are used in Google Translate -- to decode a 250-year old secret message.

The original document, nicknamed the Copiale Cipher, was written in the late 18th century and found in the East Berlin Academy after the Cold War. It's since been kept in a private collection, and the 105-page, slightly yellowed tome has withheld its secrets ever since.

But in 2011, University of Southern California Viterbi School of Engineering computer scientist Kevin Knight -- an expert in translation, not so much in cryptography -- and colleagues Beáta Megyesi and Christiane Schaefer of Uppsala University in Sweden, tracked down the document, transcribed a machine-readable version and set to work cracking the centuries-old code.

The book's pages -- bound in gold and green brocade paper -- contained about 75,000 characters in very neat handwriting. Outside of two words -- an owner's mark ("Philipp 1866") and a note in the end of the last page ("Copiales 3") -- the rest was encoded.

Some of the letters were obviously Roman and others were plainly Greek, while the rest were abstract symbols and doodles.

At first, Knight and his team isolated the Roman and Greek characters, figuring that they might be the real message, and attacked it with a home-made translation project. 80 different languages, and many hours later, and nothing happened. "It took quite a long time and resulted in complete failure," says Knight.

The team realized that the known characters were just there to mislead. So they booted them out and looked at the symbols. They theorized that abstract symbols with similar shapes might represent the same letter, or groups of letters. They tested this with different languages and when German was used, some meaningful words emerged -- "Ceremonies of Initiation", followed by "Secret Section".

A little computation later and a good chunk of the book had been decoded and transcribed. The document revealed the rituals and political leanings of a German secret society, and one that had a strange obsession with eyeballs, plucking eyebrows, eye surgery and ophthalmology. You can read the entire, weird, manifesto in English at

Buoyant from his success, Knight is now planning on using his techniques and programs to tackle other codes including ones from the Zodiac Killer, a Northern Californian serial murderer from the 60s; "Kryptos," an encrypted message carved into a granite sculpture on the grounds of CIA headquarters; and the Voynich Manuscript, a medieval document that has baffled professional cryptographers for decades.

Copiale Cipher

You may optionally see the entire manuscript describing the work at

The instructions

Create a new document called yourusername-A13.docx.

After you have read the above article, create a response to the article that addresses the following prompts. You only need write a paragraph of 3-5 sentences or more for each. The goal is that your response shows you have thought about the article and added your own experience or insights to its ideas.
  1. If you had an encrypted document that you somehow planned to decrypt, what do you think would be important features to consider as you tried to crack the code? Explain.
  2. The article says, "A little computation later and a good chunk of the book had been decoded and transcribed." What do kind of computation do you think would have been used? Explain in a paragraph.
  3. As of March 12, 2014, Google is encrypting search globally. Why do you think Google has chosen to do this?
  4. After reading Apple, The FBI And iPhone Encryption: A Look At What's At Stake explain the position of the FBI and their reasons for taking this position. Then explain the position of Apple and their reasons for taking this position.
  5. Do you think there are ways of writing code where decryption is not simply the opposite process? Explain your answer.
  6. Describe some types of information you consider private, and would want encrypted when being shared across a network. Explain why this type of information needs to be kept private.
Note that submitted files with incorrect filenames may not receive full credit because it makes grading more difficult for us and the TAs, so please check filenames carefully!

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