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Cryptography In Action

Student projects showcase many uses of coding
Story Series
News Feature

When thinking of secret codes, one’s mind might be drawn to a plot from a thrilling spy movie. Bridgewater State University’s Dr. Ward Heilman thinks of swiping a credit card.

Encryption, which is the process of limiting access to information through the use of encoding, plays a role in everyday tasks like sending an email, making a bank transaction and, of course, using a credit card. And, Heilman wants to ensure his students understand cryptography’s historical and modern applications.

“This is real,” said Heilman, a mathematics and computer science professor. “It’s real life.”

We sat down with three students in his graduate computer science cryptography course to discuss their class projects.

Modernizing the Enigma machine

The Germans used Enigma machines in World War II to send secret messages to troops. Amanda Morrison, G’20, brought the technology into the 21st century.

Enigma machines rely on a series of letter substitutions, and Morrison made a digital version using computer coding. She even created a program that allows users to customize the substitutions.

“I thought it would be a unique challenge,” the Halifax resident said. “A lot of the other things we learned in class are things that are already coded. I wanted to turn hardware into software.”

And, she realized a job in encryption may be a good career fit.

Bridgewater professors “have been able to point me in a direction with the tools I need to succeed in this field,” she said.

From childhood diary to graduate school project

Many children try to keep prying eyes away from their journals. But, few likely go as far as Minji Lee, ’18. 

Lee, an international student from South Korea who speaks five languages, matched letters in her native Korean with English letters, allowing her to translate Korean into a jumble of English letters that were meaningless without knowing the code. For her project, Lee turned her childhood code into a computer program.

She learned about programming and working with different languages, however, completing the project meant much more.

“Personally, that was my elementary school memory,” said Lee, who is continuing her studies at Northeastern University. “It was very surprising and at the same time very touching that I could make it actually work on a computer.”

When there’s more than meets the eye

You’ve probably heard of artists inserting hidden messages in their artwork. But, you can also literally hide messages within a digital image, a form of steganography. 

While encryption protects messages from being decoded, “in steganography, you’re hiding the very existence of that message,” said Andy Couto, ’15, G’19, who made a steganography toolkit easier to use. 

Steganography could enable viruses to infect computers or a whistleblower to pass information to a journalist, said Couto, who is from Middleboro.

“I want to go into software coding and programming,” she said. “Learning about all these different things is only broadening my mind about things that I can do.”

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United States