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Can You Break This Code? Mathematics Awareness Month 2006 Focuses on Internet Security

Can You Break This Code? Mathematics Awareness Month 2006 Focuses on Internet Security

By Keith Devlin

No, it's not a prop from the TV series NUMB3RS, although it could have been. The note shown in the picture was sent to internationally known computer security expert Bruce Schneier, who posted it on his website “Schneier on Security” in January. (See

Schneier says that the person who sent the alleged cryptogram to him claimed that it had been left behind by a man who had murdered his wife and stepson and then hung himself in the basement of their house. The sender wanted to know what the message said.

Chances are, the cryptogram is a hoax, although the double murder and suicide the sender referred to was a real case. In any event, neither Schneier nor anyone else has managed to break the code, if code there is, and from a glance it seems that, even if there is a real message there, without additional information it would not be possible to break the code.

Code making and code breaking are major activities these days, as more and more aspects of our lives are dependent on the security of electronic communications — email, Internet shopping, online banking, mobile phones, border security, etc.

The secret sauce of all modern codes — and all attempts to crack them — is mathematics. As Schneier himself has observed: “Cryptographic security comes from mathematics, not from people and not from machines. Mathematical security is available to everyone, both the weak and the powerful alike, and gives ordinary people a very powerful tool to protect their privacy.”

It is therefore both appropriate and timely that the theme for this year's Mathematics Awareness Month, to take place in April, is Mathematics and Internet Security.

For details, including many resources you can draw upon in designing MAM activities at your own institution, visit the Mathematics Awareness Month website at

Mathematics Awareness Month is held each year in April. Its goal is to increase public understanding of and appreciation for mathematics. MAM is organized by The Joint Policy Board for Mathematics (JPBM), which is a collaborative effort of the American Mathematical Society (AMS), the American Statistical Association (ASA) , the Mathematical Association of America (MAA) , and the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics (SIAM).

News Date: 
Tuesday, March 7, 2006