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Experts untangle old, new codes as encryption is eyed to fight terrorism

| Sunday, Dec. 27, 2015, 10:50 p.m.
St. Vincent College professor Thomas Ernst of Ross specializes in cryptology.
Philip G. Pavely | Trib Total Media
St. Vincent College professor Thomas Ernst of Ross specializes in cryptology.

Like a computer hacker for 15th century texts, Thomas Ernst sees meaning where others find only gibberish.

A German professor at St. Vincent College in Latrobe, he has developed a knack for deciphering otherwise unbreakable ancient codes. In the mid-1990s, he was the first person to solve a riddle written by a German abbot nearly 500 years earlier.

“When you can solve a cipher or you can prove that something is not a cipher ... it's kind of like the universe stands still,” said Ernst, 57, of Ross. “It may not matter to anyone else, but to you alone at that moment, but there is this moment of certainty that something is a certain way.”

Humans have been drawn to ciphers and coded messages for as long as people have wanted to keep secrets. Even though encryptions have become more complicated with computers, the underlying principle remains the same, experts said.

“The thread is that you know something you don't want somebody else to know — your enemy — and you somehow have to keep that a secret,” said Ron Hipschman, a scientist at the Exploratorium science museum in San Francisco.

“The problem is ... it takes time to make something secret and time to make it un-secret on the other end.”

Encrypted messages have become a hot topic again among the military, law enforcement, members of Congress and some presidential candidates, who want U.S. technology companies to work with them to provide back-door access to such messages in order to prevent planning for attacks such as the recent assaults in Paris.

Civil rights groups, the American Civil Liberties Union and other free-speech advocates warn against aiding such intrusions.

Even hundreds of years before computers, humans discovered various machines that could make that process easier, said Nicholas Rescher, a University of Pittsburgh philosophy professor. He rediscovered plans for the world's first cipher device from the 1670s and had the machine built.

“From early antiquity, people have needed on one count or another to communicate with one another in ways that are not obvious to third parties,” Rescher said. “There's a whole vast range of devices that have been created to that end.”

Computers have made encryption so easy and inexpensive that it has become routine for everyday online purchases and basic communications. Users of Apple's iMessage and other services such as Telegram, Wickr and Kik can encrypt even the most banal communications.

“When you use those systems, you don't really think about it,” said Cedric Leighton, a retired Air Force intelligence officer who works as a computer security consultant. “Basically every credit card transaction relies on the work of centuries of mathematicians.”

Johannes Trithemius was one of those first cryptologists, writing a trilogy of books in 1499 called “Steganographia,” which is Greek for hidden words. The first two books laid out the secrets for communicating through ciphers and are considered the first handbooks on cryptology.

The third book remained a mystery for hundreds of years. Trithemius, a German abbot, hinted that he had discovered a way to communicate across time, and the book included allusions to the planets and angels, along with rows of numbers.

People for centuries believed that Trithemius really had uncovered black magic. But Ernst quickly realized that, as often happens with codes, these people were seeing what they wanted to see — rather than what the ancient author actually wrote.

“There was a lot in print about the third book that said it's not a cipher and it contains some kind of magic, something occult, something metaphysical, something otherworldly, whether good or bad,” Ernst said. “I just liked to put a needle into that balloon somehow.”

As he sat down on a Saturday night to go over a copy of the third volume, Ernst started to notice patterns. The columns seemed to be arranged and certain numbers repeating. He started transposing them into various arrangements of letters until they started making sense.

The first word to emerge was gaza, the Latin word for “treasure.”

“After that, I had kind of hit the ‘treasure' in the book,” Ernst said. “I knew the numbers stood for letters.”

Most of the messages translated into German, rather than Latin. Instead of revealing some secret wisdom, they included trite phrases of the day, warnings about the tax man or rogues and thieves.

The message itself was the message: People could communicate through numbers. Trithemius could be understood by someone living hundreds of years later.

In a twist, two people other than Ernst deciphered the secret messages. Wolfgang Ernst Heidel solved the riddle in 1676, but he hid the discovery inside another cipher so that no one could verify that he had done it.

Then, two years after Ernst solved the riddle, Jim Reeds, a mathematician who works at the Center for Communications Research in Princeton, N.J., deciphered the code, too — not realizing it had been broken.

Ernst since has turned his attention to other centuries-old riddles, solving some, attempting to solve others and simply determining that some are not even ciphers meant to be decoded.

Ernst sees a connection to modern encryption and computer hackers, too.

“For every message or suspected secret message,” he said, “there will be ... attempts to crack such messages.”

Andrew Conte is a member of the Trib Total Media investigations team. Reach him at 412-320-7835 or

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