Our National Security Depends On "Algebra"
How Would Our National Security Depend on Algebra?
National Security Agency (NSA) makes use of mathematicians in the
cryptology, the science of encoding and decoding messages.
NSA Mathematicians use math, and specifically Abstract Algebra, to:
- Design and analyze complex algorithms
- Express difficult cryptographic problems in Mathematic terms
- Apply their work to find a solution or demonstrate that a
solution cannot be found1
What is Abstract Algebra and How Is It Used To Break Codes?
Abstract Algebra, a course typically taken my Mathematics or
Physics majors in college, actually is a generalized form of the
algebra one learns in high school. For example, an
Algebraic Group consists of an operation that must be associative,
an identity must exist for each element of the group, and an inverse
must exist for each element of the group.
In order to break a code, one must be able to reproduce the coding
algorithm along with a matching decoding algorithm. In other words,
one must be able to develop a formula or formulas that will both code
messages and reverse the coding process in order to decode an
encrypted message. We call these formulas functions. We
would call the formula that reverses the operation the inverse
An Example of Coding and Decoding
An encryption method used by Julius Caesar to communicate with his
generals is called the
and simply shifts each letter a specified number of places to make a
new letter. For example, if each letter were shifted 2 places,
the word CAT is encoded as ECV since C shifts to E, A shifts to C, and
T shifts to V. An online encoding program that I wrote up allowing you
to encode your own messages is
Some interesting examples of coding used in driver's licenses, ISBN
numbers, and other areas is given at
Washington State Check Digit Scheme
1. NSA Career