GR8 3NCRYP1I0N- The False Security

“The cipher of Mary Queen of Scots clearly demonstrates that a weak encryption can be worse than no encryption at all.”- Simon Singh (The Code Book, pg. 41)

When most people think of encryption, they often associate it with security. The art and science of cryptography was created to facilitate the secure transmission of a message between two people. For the sake of simplicity, we will refer to these people as “Alice” and “Bob”. If Alice wants to send a secure message to Bob, then she has three options to choose from. The options are as follows:

  1. Alice could hide the message using Steganography, which is defined as: “Hiding a secret message within a larger one in such a way that others cannot discern the presence or contents of the hidden message.”
  2. Alice could disguise the message using Cryptography, which is defined as: “The procedures, processes, methods, etc., of making and using secretwriting, as codes or ciphers.”
  3. The third option would be for Alice to simply deliver the message and hope that a third party (“Eve”) does not intercept it.

As seen in the above quote, Queen Mary of Scots trusted her use of Cryptography to a fault. This is often seen when cryptographers (those who encrypt messages) underestimate the skill of cryptanalysts (those who decipher messages). Queen Mary plotted the assassination of Elizabeth, Queen of England, while she herself was imprisoned by Elizabeth. She did this through the use of both cryptography and steganography, meaning she hid encrypted messages in different items, which were then sent to her co-conspirators. Years later, this conspiracy would come to be known as the Babington Plot.

Although these tools can be unbelievably useful when trying to hide a message from prying eyes, they must still be used with care and caution. Queen Mary trusted her encryption so much that her messages contained detailed information about the plot. This information, which was deciphered by Elizabeth’s cryptanalysts, was eventually used as evidence which sealed Mary’s sentence: Execution.

The Execution of Queen Mary of Scots

To further illustrate the point of flawed encryption, the title of this post utilizes a simple example of a common cipher, although people do not consider it as such. The phrase “Great Encryption” is encoded using a substitution cipher. The “-eat” in great is replaced by the numeral “8” due to the rhyming nature of the two words. The letters of “E and T” in encryption are replaced with the numerals “3 and 1”, due to their visible similarities. Although I have no misconceptions in believing that anyone reading this has any sort of difficulty reading the title, it is important to show that some ciphers are inherently flawed.

Queen Mary of Scots fell into the same dilemma that is shown by my encryption. While I believe that everyone can discern the meaning of “Gr8 3ncryp1ion”, Mary believed that no one could decipher her messages. Because of her faith in the cipher, she did not bother hiding specific details of her plot, which eventually led to her death.

In this scenario her faith in her encryption failed her. It would have been better if she had used no encryption because she would have been more cautious in choosing her words and how they were delivered. This is the fundamental flaw in the reckless use of cryptography: the false security.