Eastern Mennonite University team wins international codebreaking contest
By Randi B. Hagi
Five and a half hours, nine back-to-back Zoom calls, and three puzzles later, Eastern Mennonite University’s veteran codebreaker team emerged victorious in the KRYPTOS 2020 challenge, taking first place over 49 teams from the U.S., France, Hong Kong, and the Netherlands.
Cameron Byer, Hannah Leaman, and Ben Stutzman made up the winning team. This is the second time competing for Leaman and Stutzman, and Byer’s third year in a row. In 2018, they won gold; last year, the team took second place. This year, though, the team had to adapt their codebreaking prowess to collaborate online.
Stutzman said this was challenging, since they couldn’t show each other their physical notes or problem-solve on a giant whiteboard. Instead, they shared Google docs and their computer screens through Zoom to finish ahead of the seven other teams that completed all three puzzles within the 96-hour time limit.
The KRYPTOS Cryptanalysis challenge is hosted by Central Washington University each year for participants from colleges, universities, and high schools around the globe. Participants can glean information from computer programs, books, journals, and internet sources, but no “living persons” other than their teammates.
The third and hardest challenge required all three teammates to solve. A grid of letters “taped to the underside of a desk drawer” with colored curves drawn in invisible ink, as the challenge read, held the clues to decipher an encrypted text message sent from a bio-terrorist. Leaman cut up the grid and rearranged it to create a message in English.
“However, this was only a hint at how the real cipher was encrypted. She figured out that it was a strange transposition cipher, where the plaintext is written out in a rectangle of alternating pairs and single letters, the columns are rearranged according to a keyword, and then the result is read off by the column… super tricky!” Stutzman said.
Through trial and error, the team arranged and rearranged the text in a rectangle, adjusting the column sizes, order, and spacing until a sensible message finally emerged: “keep sample refrigerated at forty two degrees deliver to garage behind warehouse one sixty west hollywood boulevard evening of april nine.”
“My favorite part of the competition is when you get a challenge that everyone contributes to,” Stutzman said.
Two other teams from EMU competed as well, solving one and two puzzles, respectively.