FSEM 092 Code Making and Code Breaking Fall 2009

FSEM 092 Course Information

Course Description

For thousands of years, people have gone to great lengths to keep secrets...and others have gone to even greater lengths to discover those secrets. This course will survey 2500 years of cryptographic technology from relatively simple classic ciphers to the pivotal breaking of Enigma in World War II to sophisticated modern techniques, set against a backdrop of historical drama and intrigue. Issues of security and privacy in our increasingly online world will also be considered. Interest in puzzle-solving is a must - studying code making and code breaking means trying it yourself!


Stina Bridgeman
Lansing 312, x3614

Course Web Page

You are expected to regularly consult the course web page for announcements, assignments, and most handouts.


The Code Book by Simon Singh
Random House, 1999
ISBN 9780385495325 (paperback)

Cryptology by Albrecht Beutelspacher
Mathematical Association of America, 1994
ISBN 9780883855041

Additional material will be handed out or posted on the course webpage.

Rationale, Aims, and Objectives

All first-year seminars are designed to introduce first year students to college-level academic life and to develop skills that you will need throughout your career at HWS (and beyond). As a result, all first-year seminars emphasize the key skills of critical thinking and effective communication.

This course aims to develop skills in five main areas:

  • Using the library and evaluating print and online resources.
  • Logical thinking: problem solving by creating hypotheses, devising tests for those hypotheses, observing the results of the tests, and reasoning about and drawing conclusions from the evidence gathered.
  • Technical reading and writing: carefully following instructions and creating good instructions for others to follow.
  • Informative writing: writing about technical topics for a non-technical audience.
  • Persuasive writing: formulating and defending a position on an issue, supported by evidence.

In addition, this course has several content-related goals:

  • To develop an awareness of how cryptographic technology affects you, and what one's responsibilities are with regards to this technology.
  • To develop an appreciation for some of the applications of mathematics.

You might notice that I haven't said anything about gaining factual knowledge about cryptography, cryptanalysis, and the related history - while you will learn that material as part of the course (and you'll need it to successfully complete the assignments!), those details probably won't be important to you next semester or next year, let alone four years from now when you graduate and move on to the next phase of your life. The skills and goals listed, however, are things that you will continue to use in your classes, job, and life.

Course Content Overview

Since the topic of the course is code making and code breaking, we'll naturally be studying codes. (To be technically precise, we'll actually be studing ciphers rather than codes.) The course material can be divided into four main units:

  • Classical Cryptology: For much of history, the encoding, decoding, and cracking of encrypted messages was done by hand. We begin our study of code making and code breaking with important classical ciphers and will examine their place in history, what made them successful, and how they were broken.

  • The Turning Point of Machines: The German Enigma machines and the efforts to crack them are the best symbols of what Simon Singh calls "the mechanization of secrecy" - where the increasing complexity of ciphers requires mechanical assistance for encoding, decoding, and cracking. We will study how the Enigma machines worked, how the cipher was broken, and the importance of Enigma in history.

  • Modern Cryptography: Computers have led to a new age of cryptography, both in the sophistication of the ciphers possible and in the applications of cryptography. We will study modern techniques for data encryption, authentication, guaranteeing message integrity, and secure communications as well as why you'd want to do these things. We will also discuss issues of privacy, security, and the role of cryptography in everyday life.

  • Related Topics: Cryptanalytic techniques are not limited to deciphering messages meant to be secret. We will look at some other areas (such as deciphering ancient languages) where these techniques are useful. We will also look at some other topics related to the keeping of secrets. One such topic is steganography, where the goal is to hide the existence of the message in the first place.

Class Format

Learning is not a spectator sport: it requires actively engaging in the material, thinking about it, and working with it. This is particularly important when the goal is to acquire new skills - very few people can become good at something simply by watching someone else do it. As a result, much of our class time will be devoted to activities and discussions rather than simply conveying information through lecturing.

Of course, the goal of this course is build critical thinking and effective communication skills in the context of a study of cryptography - and so you need to learn something about cryptography as a foundation. Because class time is limited, it will be your responsibility to acquire some of this foundational information outside of class via the assigned readings.

Writing Colleague

We are lucky to have Emily Anatole as the Writing Colleague (WC) for this course. WCs are upper class students who have been trained to help you improve your writing, whatever your current skill level. A few things about WCs and this course:

  • The role of the WC is to help you develop and refine your ideas and to help you with the clarity, organization, and tone of your writing. She is not a proofreader or editor, nor will she come up with ideas for you or tell you what to write. The WC is also not a tutor - if you are having trouble with the material, come to me.

  • Meetings with the WC are mandatory. Missing meetings will result in a reduction of your grade on the assignment.

  • Be prepared for WC meetings. Meetings are discussions facilitated by the WC, and will only be productive if you come prepared. Specifically, being prepared means:

    • Writing a complete draft. (A disjointed collection of notes is not a complete draft.)
    • Turning the draft in on time so the WC has time to read it.
    • Coming to the meeting with one or two specific questions about your draft.

    Not being prepared for meetings will result in a reduction of your grade on the assignment.

  • Take notes at WC meetings. The WC will not write up the advice for you.

  • The WC does not grade your papers, nor is she responsible for the grade that you get on a paper. Your grades are your responsibility, and simply meeting with the WC does not guarantee a good grade. Questions about grades should be addressed to me.

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