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Can you break the code? Kryptos contest starts on April 13

April 11, 2017 GMT

Kryptos, the annual code-breaking contest, is on Thursday and the Central Washington University Mathematics Department invites all undergraduate students to participate.

The contest centers on cryptanalysis, or the art of deciphering coded messages without a key. Each challenge presents contestants with a brief scenario together with an encoded message — ciphertext. The goal is to discover the original English plaintext message. The competition was developed by CWU mathematics professor Stuart Boersma, and his colleague, Cheryl Beaver, a Western Oregon University mathematics professor.

Individual undergraduate students, or teams of up to three, are eligible to participate. Each individual or team must have a faculty sponsor to register. Last year, there were more than 200 entrants from 16 states and five countries. Even if you don’t qualify as a contestant, you can go to the Kryptos website, www.cwu.edu/math/kryptos, to look at the previous years’ challenges and solutions — and test your skills as a cryptanalyst.

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According to Boersma, who teaches an upper level mathematics course in cryptology every few years, many of the challenges are based on historical ciphers that pre-date World War II. And while computers can be helpful in breaking some of the codes, most can be solved — if a little tediously—with paper and pencil.

“The main objective is to have fun,” said Boersma. “Most students with a little familiarity with ciphers or code-breaking will be able to solve the challenges. They aren’t overly technical nor do they use advanced mathematical algorithms.”

The contest begins at 4 p.m. Thursday, and the challenges will be available on the Kryptos website. Solutions need to be submitted by 4 p.m. Monday. All times are Pacific Daylight Time.