EMU cryptanalysis trio finishes second in international competition, achieves ‘Master Codebreaker’ status


An Eastern Mennonite University team this month placed second out of 62 teams in an international cryptanalysis competition, and was one of only 15 teams to achieve Master Codebreaker status by solving all three challenges.

The Kryptos 2019 team included sophomore Cameron Byer and junior Daniel Harder, both math and computer science double majors, and first-year student Hannah Leaman, a math major with secondary education certification.

Comprised of 149 students, competing teams and individuals represented colleges and universities from France, Idaho, Illinois, Massachusetts, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Vermont, Virginia, Washington and Wisconsin.

The annual contest, hosted since 2011 by the mathematics department at Central Washington University in Ellensburg, was sponsored by the Pacific Northwest Section of the Mathematical Association of America.

Teams or competing individuals could use books, the internet and computer programs – but no living person other than a teammate – to solve the challenges. Along with their correct answers, they were required to describe how they reached a solution and list any sources used.

“The most intense part of the competition was waiting for the release of the problems,” said Byer. “Once released, I think we all kind of forgot that it was a competition and just had fun solving the problems.”

Daniel Harder, Cameron Byer and Hannah Leaman review their work from the Kryptos 2019 cryptanalysis competition.

They worked quickly, solving all three problems in under five hours – much less time than it took last year, when Byer, Harder and senior Ben Stutzman(currently on cross-cultural) placed first after nearly 20 hours of work.

Each teammate led the deciphering of one of the challenges. For the one under Leaman’s lead, they were given a method to decrypt a message, a short decrypted message, and then an encrypted message they needed to decrypt.

“After discovering the connection between the method of decryption and the short decrypted message, we realized that we couldn’t use the provided method of decryption for the encrypted message,” she said. “We had to rewrite an entire method of decryption that was specific to that encrypted message, which was difficult. I enjoyed this one specifically because there were so many layers to the problem to discover and work through.”

In another, with Harder’s lead, they were given a large number of letters split into groups of one to five letters each to decode.

“After half an hour of trying different approaches,” he said, “we realized that the letters, when marked on a keyboard, were arranged like Braille patterns. We then easily solved it in a matter of minutes.”

The team solved Byer’s problem by writing a computer program.

“It had a method of encryption already laid out, so we knew all of the steps that had been taken to encrypt the secret message,” he said. “All that remained was to determine the code word used by those sending and receiving the message to keep the contents of the message encrypted. We knew the code word was four letters long, so to break the encryption we wrote a computer program to test over all possible words and return anything that looked like English.”

Everything came back gibberish, he said, except for the word “news,” which revealed the secret message.

Two other teams from EMU also competed.

In addition to last year’s first place finish, EMU performed well in 2014, when EMU teams took both first and third place. That year Byer was on the third-place finishing team – as a freshman at Eastern Mennonite High School.