How Caesar Cipher Teaches us the Most Valuable Lesson – Learn Kerckhoff’s Principle in 5 Steps with Python Code

What will we cover?

  • Understand the challenge to send a secret message
  • Understand the Caesar Cipher
  • How to create an implementation of that in Python
  • How to break the Caesar Cipher
  • Understand the importance of Kerckhoff’s Principle

Step 1: Understand the challenge to send a secret message

In cryptography you have three people involved in almost any scenario. We have Alice that wants to send a message to Bob. But Alice want to send it in a way, such that she ensures that Eve (the evil person) cannot understand it.

But let’s break with tradition and introduce an addition person, Mike. Mike is the messenger. Because we are back in the times of Caesar. Alice represent one of Caesar close generals that needs to send a message to the front lines of the army. Bob is in the front line and waits for a command from Alice. DO ATTACK or NO ATTACK.

Alice will use Mike, the messenger, to send that message to Bob.

Alice is of course afraid of that Eve, the evil enemy, will capture Mike along the way.

Of course, as Alice is smart, she knows that Mike should not understand the message he is delivering, and Eve should not be able to understand it as well. It should only add value to Bob, when Mike gives him the message.

That is the problem that Caesar wanted to solve with his cipher system.

Step 2: Understand the Caesar Cipher

Let’s do this a bit backwards.

You receive the message. BRX DUH DZHVRPH

That is pretty impossible to understand. But if you were told that this is the Caesar Cipher using the shift of 3 characters. Then maybe it makes sense.

As you can see, then green letters are the plaintext characters and the red letters are the encrypted cipher text letters. Hence, A will be a D. That is the letter A is shifted 3 characters down the row.

Reversing this, you see the the encrypted B, will map to the plaintext Y.

If you continue this process you will get.

That is a nice message to get.

Step 3: How to create an implementation of that in Python

Well, that is easy. There are many ways to do it. I will make use of the dictionary to make my life easy.

def generate_key(n):
    letters = "ABCDEFGHIJKLMNOPQRSTUVWXYZ"
    key = {}
    cnt = 0
    for c in letters:
        key[ c] = letters[(cnt + n) % len(letters)]
        cnt += 1
    return key


def get_decryption_key(key):
    dkey = {}
    for c in key:
        dkey[key[ c]] = c
    return dkey

    
def encrypt(key, message):
    cipher = ""
    for c in message:
        if c in key:
            cipher += key[ c]
        else:
            cipher += c
    return cipher


# This is setting up your Caesar Cipher key
key = generate_key(3)
# Hmm... I guess this will print the key
print(key)
# This will encrypt the message you have chose with your key
message = "YOU ARE AWESOME"
cipher = encrypt(key, message)
# I guess we should print out your AWESOME message
print(cipher)

Step 4: How to break the Caesar Cipher

If you look at it like this. There is a flaw in the system. Can you see what?

Yes, of course you can. We are in the 2020ies and not back in the times of Caesar.

The key space is too small.

Breaking it basically takes the following code.

# this is us breaking the cipher
print(cipher)
for i in range(26):
    dkey = generate_key(i)
    message = encrypt(dkey, cipher)
    print(message)

You read the code correct. There are only 26 keys. That means, that even back in the days of Caesar this could be done in hand.

This leads us to the most valuable lesson in cryptography and most important principle.

Step 5: Understand the importance of Kerckhoff’s Principle

Let’s just recap what happened here.

Alice sent a message to Bob that Eve captured. Eve did not understand it.

But the reason why Eve did not understand it, was not because she did not have the key.

No, if she knew the algorithm.

Yes, if Eve knew the algorithm of Caesar Cipher, she would not need the secret key to break it.

This leads to the most important lesson in cryptography. Kerckhoff’s Principle.

Eve should not be able to break the ciphers even when she knows the cipher.

Kerckhoff’s Principle

That is seems counterintuitive, right? Yes, but think about it, if you system is secure against any attack even if you reveal your algorithm, then it would give you more confidence that it is secure.

You security should not be based on keeping the algorithm secret. No it should be based on the secret key.

Is that principle followed?

No.

Most government ciphers are kept secret.

Many secret encryption algorithms that leaked were broken.

This also includes the one used for mobile traffic in the old G2 network. A5/1 and the export version A5/2.

Understand Caesar Cipher by Implementing it in Python

What will we cover?

  • Understand what Caesar Cipher is
  • Implement Caesar Cipher in Python
  • Understand the weakness of Caesar Cipher

What is Caesar Cipher

Caesar Cipher is a simple substitution cipher, which is limited to only shift the characters by fix number.

Imagine you got the message: BRX DUH DZHVRPH. What to make out of it. Makes no sense. Just ignore it, right?

Well, for the untrained eye, yes, ignore it. But why would anyone bother sending you that message? Aren’t you curious?

I would be. Let’s say your friend told you it was a Caesar Cipher with a 3-key shift. What does that mean?

In the picture below, you can see how the letters are shifted from the green letters (plain text), to the encrypted red letters (cipher text). As an example, A is encrypted to D, and B is encrypted to E, and so forth.

By using that strategy, you can also figure out that a cipher B (red letters) maps to the plain Y (green letters). A cipher R maps to the plain O. And so forth. That results in that your secret message decrypts to YOU ARE AWESOME.

What a nice message to get.

Implementation of Caesar Cipher in Python

Below is an example of how you could implement the Caesar Cipher in Python.

def generate_key(n):
    chars = "ABCDEFGHIJKLMNOPQRSTUVWXYZ"
    key = {}
    cnt = 0
    for c in chars:
        key = chars[(cnt + n) % len(chars)]
        cnt += 1
    return key


def encrypt(key, message):
    cipher = ""
    for c in message:
        if c in key:
            cipher += key
        else:
            cipher += c
    return cipher


def get_decrypt_key(key):
    dkey = {}
    for k in key:
        dkey[key[k]] = k
    return dkey


key = generate_key(3)
dkey = generate_key(23)
cipher = encrypt(key, "YOU ARE AWESOME")
print(cipher)
message = encrypt(dkey, cipher)
print(message)
dkey = get_decrypt_key(key)
print(encrypt(dkey, cipher))

There are some things to notice. First of all, the generate_key function comes in handy, when we extend our cipher function to the more general substitution cipher.

Also, notice, that encryption and decryption are done with the same function, just different keys. The decryption key of key-3 is key-23.

See that you can actually calculate the decryption key quite nice, as done in the get_decrypt_key function, which can be used if this is extended to a general substitution cipher.

How to de-cipher a Caesar Cipher message

Image you had received the message BRX DUH DZHVRPH, but didn’t know the key. What to do?

No worries, there is a way to solve that problem efficiently.

The scenario is that Alice wants to send Bob a secret message, but someone (you) get’s a copy of the message (and you are called Eve).

The secrecy of the message was intended to be, that you (Eve) does not know the Algorithm (how the encryption is done). That might seems naive today, but back in the time of Caesar, this was the state of the art, and people were not that knowledgable about the art of cryptography.

But you are in luck. Yes, I am talking to you Eve.

You know the Algorithm and you are soon to figure out, that the key space is quite small. Actually it only contains 26 possible keys.

That is in the reach of you manually trying out all possible keys.

But you are in more luck, because you realised that you also have Python. So let’s try to fix it in Python.

def generate_key(n):
    chars = "ABCDEFGHIJKLMNOPQRSTUVWXYZ"
    key = {}
    cnt = 0
    for c in chars:
        key = chars[(cnt + n) % len(chars)]
        cnt += 1
    return key


def encrypt(key, message):
    cipher = ""
    for c in message:
        if c in key:
            cipher += key
        else:
            cipher += c
    return cipher


cipher = "BRX DUH DZHVRPH"
for i in range(26):
    key = generate_key(i)
    message = encrypt(key, cipher)
    print(message)

That will generate the following output.

CSY EVI EAIWSQI
DTZ FWJ FBJXTRJ
EUA GXK GCKYUSK
FVB HYL HDLZVTL
GWC IZM IEMAWUM
HXD JAN JFNBXVN
IYE KBO KGOCYWO
JZF LCP LHPDZXP
KAG MDQ MIQEAYQ
LBH NER NJRFBZR
MCI OFS OKSGCAS
NDJ PGT PLTHDBT
OEK QHU QMUIECU
PFL RIV RNVJFDV
QGM SJW SOWKGEW
RHN TKX TPXLHFX
SIO ULY UQYMIGY
TJP VMZ VRZNJHZ
UKQ WNA WSAOKIA
VLR XOB XTBPLJB
WMS YPC YUCQMKC
XNT ZQD ZVDRNLD
YOU ARE AWESOME
ZPV BSF BXFTPNF
AQW CTG CYGUQOG

That was awesome right.

Conclusion

The security of Caesar Cipher was by keeping the Algorithm secret. That approach to security is not used anymore. Kerckhoffs’ Principle states that the adversary (Eve) should not be able to break the cipher even when she knows the Algorithm.