Cracking a codebreaker’s birthday code

Cracking a codebreaker’s birthday code

Three Israeli kids -- one of them just 9 -- sifted through a half billion 0's and 1's, and came up with a birthday present that would have made master cryptanalyst Alan Turing proud

Education Minister Daniel Hershkowitz (center rear) with the winners of the Turing code contest (left to right) Itay Naor, Almog Veled, and Adar Zeitek (photo credit: Courtesy)
Education Minister Daniel Hershkowitz (center rear) with the winners of the Turing code contest (left to right) Itay Naor, Almog Veled, and Adar Zeitek (photo credit: Courtesy)

Most birthdays get celebrated with cake and some balloons, but the birthday of Alan Turing — this year would have been his 100th — was celebrated a bit more elaborately. All over the world, computer geeks solved elaborate codes and ciphers designed to honor Turing. Turing is considered the father of artificial intelligence for his work in the early days of computing, when he developed what we now know today as algorithms — a primitive form of “thinking,” with computers following situation-based rules to make decisions.

Turing, who died in 1954, was also an expert in encryption, a skill he used extensively in his computing work. But before he worked for Britain’s National Physical Laboratory and the University of Manchester, where he did much of his computer work, Turing was a renowned cryptographer and codebreaker, deciphering Axis codes for the Allies during World War II. So, it was most appropriate for Israel’s Education Ministry to hold a codebreaking contest for junior high and high school students, as did schools, universities, and websites around the world.

Compared to some of the Turing challenges in other countries, Israel’s was especially challenging: Students had to find the binary code for words and sentences hidden within 500 million binary digits of computer code (the first 500 million binary digits of pi, mixed up to form the words and characters written in binary code, the 0’s and 1’s of computer processing). The code contest was designed by code experts from Tel Aviv University, led by Professors Nachum Dershowitz and Lior Wolf. The contest ran during the summer months (Turing’s birthday was June 23), and during that period, some 30,000 people checked out the contest on the special site the Education Ministry set up for the contest.

Despite the large number of potential contestants, only 350 students participated in the contest itself — but then again, this wasn’t a mission for the faint of heart. Finding the code involved the Herculean task of translating the zeros and ones of the binary code into text, finding individual letters represented by the binary digits (for example, the letter “o” is represented by the binary string 01101111). Contestants had to go through hundreds of millions of these strings, finding the embedded letters that, put together with adjacent binary-translated letters, made words that were part of a sentence about Turing.

Clearly you’d have to be very adept at working with binary code, as well as very patient, in order to participate in an event like this. And among the most adept and patient were the three students who won, finding the longest letter/sentence strings written into the code. The three were Itai Naor, a 15-year-old from the northern town of Pardess Hana, who found 31 letters; 18-year-old Adar Zeitek of Rehovot, who found 29 — and Almog Veled, who, at the tender age of 9, came in second place, with 30 letters.

The contest results are a very positive sign for the future of technology development in Israel, Education Minister Daniel Hershkowitz said at an event at which he distributed award certificates to the winners. “Encryption is an important aspect of cyber-security. Beyond the scientific challenge, this contest was designed to encourage youth to understand the contributions of Turing,” said Hershkowitz — and to learn to apply those contributions to the country’s needs, today.

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