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UMW mathematics students win regional code breaking competition

May 12, 2011

The contest, Kryptos, is an annual challenge in which teams of two or three undergraduate students attempt to break a series of three ciphers, or coded data, over a period of four days. For Montana Western mathematics students Susie Bleken, Nathan Boll, and Dylan Goheen, a mere eight hours was sufficient to crack all three codes and win the contest.

The speed of their code breaking surprised even their professor, Eric Wright. Wright, whose role was limited to announcing the contest to students, said he was confident in the team but did not expect them to work as quickly as they did. Thirty minutes into the competition Boll sent his professor an e-mail: “Code 1 defeated.” One hour later Boll followed with the same message for Code 2.

“I’m not surprised they got all the codes, but I was surprised to see they knocked down the first two in two hours.”

– Montana Western Professor of Mathematics Eric Wright

“I’m not surprised they got all the codes, but I was surprised to see they knocked down the first two in two hours,” Wright said.

The first code was a “cryptoquote” code in which a piece of text is encrypted by exchanging each letter of the standard alphabet with corresponding letters from a single, scrambled alphabet. The second code was a Vigenère cipher, which is an improvement on the cryptoquote scheme in that each letter of the original message can be replaced with one of several choices of new letters. This disguises the characteristic frequency of letters in English text, making Vigenère ciphers much more difficult to defeat. The third and final code used a book cipher to encrypt a series of three telegrams. Book ciphers use references to chapter, page, paragraph, and word numbers in a specific edition of a book to build up letters or words of a message. To solve the last and most difficult cipher, the team needed to pull from each other’s expertise.

“It was really a group effort,” Boll explained.

Using the fictional dossier, Goheen referenced an obscure 19th century book he was familiar with entitled “Flatland” by Edwin A. Abbott. Boll found a digital version of the book and used a text-manipulating program to help the team decipher the code. When Bleken broke the first code, finishing the final cipher was only a matter of time.

The three self-described “math geeks” celebrated every trial-and-error cracked code with a round of high fives as they worked feverishly around one of Montana Western’s digital SMART Boards. At 12:45 a.m. MDT on Friday, April 29, not even eight hours after the contest began, the group submitted their work.

Wright received confirmation of the team’s victory on May 3, which the students agreed was a fitting way to wrap up the last week of spring classes.

Susie Bleken, a Butte, Mont. native, is a junior mathematics education student. Montana Western senior and mathematics student Nathan Boll hails from Bellingham, Wash. and Anchorage Alaska. Dylan Goheen, a Hamilton, Mont. native, just graduated from Montana Western with a degree in secondary education, mathematics.

Montana Western’s Kryptos competitors competed against larger universities like Central Washington University, Western Oregon University and Whitworth University. While the team members said the final code definitely challenged them, Bleken admitted the three Montana Western code breakers were game for even more.

“I think we thought it was going to be a lot harder than it was,” Bleken said.