TypewriterFrom The Urbach Letter – December 2006

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Keeping SecretsGirls Keeping Secrets (Part 1)

Remember how much fun it was to share secrets with your best friend? It made you feel very powerful to be privy to "confidential" information not known by other neighborhood kids or your parents. These top secrets were usually transmitted to your trusted friend via a whisper. If you were a pre-geek, maybe you used a code book to write secret notes to pass.

Well, you're all grown up now, and probably haven't given much thought to creating secret messages since those innocent days. Maybe you should start. As more and more of our daily communication occurs through email, shockingly sensitive information is being sent along with all the chit-chat, jokes, and recipes. Account numbers, financial details, private business data, client lists, embarrassing medical records, passwords, and much more are buzzing around the Internet… completely in the open.

Tomorrow's Headline?
Secure Communications Despite warnings from the propeller-beanie crowd that email isn't secure and that we shouldn't email anything we wouldn't mind seeing on the front page of tomorrow's newspaper, we've been lulled into a false sense of privacy by the nature of our communications. We sit down and compose a message in private for another person. The recipient likely will read it without anyone looking over his or her shoulder. But that message has traveled though many way-stations along its electronic path from here to there, and is open to anyone with the smarts and motivation to intercept it. Worse, it also has undoubtedly been stored on multiple servers, and could be recovered weeks, months, or years later. Ask those Enron guys.

A Very Bad Day
Still… you may think you're not important enough for anyone to bother with, that your stuff isn't worth protecting. Wrong. Got a laptop? What's on it? Everything I'll bet. Your little black book, Quicken files, maybe even the formula for the "secret sauce" in your business. What would happen if that laptop disappeared one day? Well, nothing good for you… if it fell into the wrong hands. You'll wish you paid more attention to what I'm about to say about encryption technology.

A regular email is absolutely the electronic equivalent of a post card. You wouldn't write your credit card number on a postcard, why would you send it in a cleartext email?

Cloak and Dagger
Ear GlassEncryption, cryptography, cleartext… it all sounds very cloak and dagger, doesn't it? Yeah, it does, but I'm here to say that you can easily use some of the same technology employed by banks, major corporations, governmental agencies, and other heavy-duty secret-keepers, to secure your communications, protect your private information, and hack-proof your computer.

I hope you agree it's time to start "keeping secrets." Luckily, just like when you were a kid, it's rather fun to do. And interesting. But you have to learn the basics first. Stay with me for a few minutes and you'll be in great shape

BrandoFrom Tactical to Practical
First the background: Julius Caesar was one of the first people to encrypt his communications. In those days, the only way for an emperor to communicate with his far flung generals was by sending written messages via a courier. If the courier was captured before he could eat the scroll, or was bribed, there was great danger the message could revealed. So Caesar did something clever (for the day). He developed a cipher. A cipher is a way of converting plain readable text, or cleartext, into scrambled, unreadable gibberish, or cyphertext. He did this in a simplistic way, by shifting each character three spaces to the right. So an A became a D, a B became an E, and so on. Thus, the word Cat became Fdw. The "key" to this encryption method was a single number. In this case, the digit three. A recipient of the scrambled message would only have to know that single item of information to decipher the emperor's orders. Simplistic sure, but it was extremely effective for the day.

Ovaltine Decoder RingMystery Message
Caesar's cipher was also the basis of the Ovaltine secret decoder ring, immortalized by little Ralphie in Jean Shepard's classic: "A Christmas Story."

Christmas Story
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Drink more Ovaltine! It doesn't take long for the marketers to seize on any opportunity to promote their product, does it? In reality, that was never one of the actual secret Annie messages. But it makes a great story.

So What?
At this point however, you're probably saying, "Victor this is all very interesting, but what can I do with it?" Good question. The answer is "not much." Well, not much directly. But when you learn how to use some simple tools based on more advanced levels of encryption, you'll be able to do everything I promised at the beginning of this article: send and receive truly secure emails, keep private documents private, and make your stolen laptop totally useless to anyone else. Those secrets will be revealed to you in the next Urbach Letter (or two).

Stay tuned.

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