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Technical Perspective: Was Edgar Allan Poe Wrong After All?

By Gilles Brassard

Communications of the ACM, Vol. 62 No. 4, Page 132

For thousands of years, the battle has been raging between codemakers and codebreakers. There have been dramatic reversals of fortune throughout history, sometimes with spectacular consequences that have changed the course of civilization. For instance, the world today would be a very different place had the Allies not cracked the German's Enigma cipher during the Second World War. Numerous popular books have been written about the war of codes, such as Simon Singh's bestseller, The Code Book: The Science of Secrecy from Ancient Egypt to Quantum Cryptography. Today, our entire economy, and the very existence of cyberspace, depends crucially on our ability to communicate confidentially. But can we really?

The billion-dollar question is: Will it be codemakers or codebreakers that emerge in the end as undisputed victors? Or perhaps the game of cat-and-mouse will go on forever, with codemakers inventing evermore clever encryption schemes, only to be defeated by even cleverer codebreakers. In 1841, poet and novelist Edgar Allan Poe famously wrote in the improbably named Graham's Lady's and Gentleman's Magazine that "It may be roundly asserted that human ingenuity cannot concoct a cipher which human ingenuity cannot resolve." This was quite a bold statement because Blaise de Vigenère had published in 1585 a scheme then known as le chiffre indéchiffrable, which nobody had yet been able to break. How could Poe ave foreseen that it would be broken by Charles Babbage just a few years later? So, perhaps he was right after all.


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