Crypto Masters: FSC Freshmen Crack Code Challenge
Freshmen Alex Charwin (left) and Ryan Buckley (right) cracked a code posted online by MI-6, the British foreign intelligence sevrice.
The code consisted of 160 pairs of letters and numbers. The challenge was to convert the rows and rows of letters and numbers into a coherent string of characters.
LAKELAND (Dec. 8, 2011) – Hoping for some extra course credit, a pair of FSC freshmen turned amateur code-crackers and tackled a deciphering challenge thrown down by the famed British foreign intelligence service, MI-6. In less than 48 hours, they had solved it.
Ryan Buckley, a broadcast journalism major from Shoreham, N.Y., and Alex Charwin, an undeclared major from Cranbury, N.J., modestly say they are not particularly gifted at math or at solving puzzles. Rather, using teamwork, persistence and a lot of Internet research, they found the keys to solving the code.
The two freshmen Honors students were enrolled in Political Science Professor Bruce Anderson’s first-year colloquium. The course has a different theme each year, and this year Anderson chose to focus the course on spies and intelligence gathering.
“It’s an examination of the history and uses of intelligence services, especially in the United States, how they’ve developed over time,” he explained. “We spent a lot of time talking about the CIA.”
Following a student’s presentation about cryptography – the discipline of encoding and decoding messages – Anderson learned about a challenge posted on the Internet by the cyber security division of MI-6. Anyone who could crack the code could type in the answer and apply for a job with the spy agency. Anderson passed on the challenge to his students with the enticement that they could receive extra credit if they solved it.
Anderson said it was not an elementary code to solve.
“It’s very difficult stuff. It was a multiply nested problem,” he said.
The code consisted of 160 pairs of letters and numbers. The challenge was to convert the rows and rows of letters and numbers into a coherent string of characters. Buckley said he didn’t think they would be able to solve it, but the two began by doing general research on codes and cryptology. After grasping that the letters and numbers were hexadecimal digits – the letter/number system used in computer programming – they began looking at websites that could convert the digits into readable form. They took turns running the code through the various converter sites.
“We used a lot of different resources. It was more research than codebreaking,” Buckley said. “We had to find out how to read it.”
“We went back and forth. We had a list of the types of codes, and each URL had a converter. We got lucky. We found the right way to read it and the right conversion,” Charwin said.
The result was a string of characters that resembled a high-security password that included the words “protection,” “cyber security” and the date “12/12/2011,” which was the deadline set by MI-6 for solving the code. Altogether, it took Buckley and Charwin about 6 hours’ work to find the answer. When they typed it in at the bottom of the website, they received a confirmation message and an invitation to apply to MI-6, which they declined.
“It’s not like I’m going to fly across the Atlantic and join MI-6,”Charwin said.