Wednesday, April 9, 2014


A Caesar cipher, also known as Caesar's cipher, the shift cipher, Caesar's code or Caesar shift, is one of the simplest and widely known encryption techniques. In this type of substitution cipher each letter in the plaintext is replaced by a letter some fixed number of positions down the alphabet. For example, with a left shift of 3, D would be replaced by A, E would become B, and so on. The method is named after Julius Caesar, who used it in his private correspondence.

As with all single alphabet substitution ciphers, the Caesar cipher is easily broken and in modern practice offers essentially no communication security.


The transformation can be represented by aligning two alphabets; the cipher alphabet is the plain alphabet rotated left or right by some number of positions. For instance, here is a Caesar cipher using a left rotation of three places, equivalent to a right shift of 23 (the shift parameter is used as the key):

When encrypting, a person looks up each letter of the message in the "plain" line and writes down the corresponding letter in the "cipher" line. Deciphering is done in reverse, with a right shift of 3.
Plaintext:  the quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog

Breaking the Cipher

The Caesar cipher can be easily broken even in a cipher text-only scenario. Two situations can be considered:

  1. An attacker knows (or guesses) that some sort of simple substitution cipher has been used, but not specifically that it is a Caesar scheme;
  2. An attacker knows that a Caesar cipher is in use, but does not know the shift value.
In the first case, the cipher can be broken using the same techniques as for a general simple substitution cipher, such as frequency analysis or pattern words. While solving, it is likely that an attacker will quickly notice the regularity in the solution and deduce that a Caesar cipher is the specific algorithm employed.

In the second instance, breaking the scheme is even more straightforward. Since there are only a limited number of possible shifts (26 in English), they can each be tested in turn in a brute force attack. One way to do this is to write out a snippet of the cipher text in a table of all possible shifts — a technique sometimes known as "completing the plain component".

Candidate plaintext

The example given is for the cipher text "EXXEGOEXSRGI"; the plaintext is instantly recognizable by eye at a shift of four. Another way of viewing this method is that, under each letter of the cipher text, the entire alphabet is written out in reverse starting at that letter. This attack can be accelerated using a set of strips prepared with the alphabet written down them in reverse order. The strips are then aligned to form the cipher text along one row, and the plaintext should appear in one of the other rows.
Another brute force approach is to match up the frequency distribution of the letters. By graphing the frequencies of letters in the cipher text, and by knowing the expected distribution of those letters in the original language of the plaintext, a human can easily spot the value of the shift by looking at the displacement of particular features of the graph. This is known as frequency analysis.

Enhancing the Cipher

Based on the explanation provided we see that main problem with Caesar cipher is predictability. Two main issues that cause this predictability are:

  1.  Fixed index for shifting characters
  2.  Knowledge about character at a given index.
We can enhance the strength of the cipher by overcoming these 2 issues. Let us look into these 2 issues and how we can overcome them:

Fixed index for shifting characters

As you read earlier in Caesar cipher each letter in the plaintext is replaced by a letter some fixed number of positions down the alphabet. Thus if attacker manages to figure out shift index he can easily break the cipher text. We can overcome this making the shift index variable. Consider the example shown in the table above. Instead of using a fixed index of 4, the index could be length of the string I.e 12. Using such variable index will make the cipher text difficult to predict. In addition to this advantage, two similar word/phrase with different lengths would have different cipher texts. For example attackatonce and attackonce will have no pattern in common even though the word “attack” and “once” are being repeated. This happens because the string length is different thus the shift index will be different.

Knowledge about character at a given index

In our previous example we also observed while shifting the alphabets, the alphabet at new position occurs as per alphabetical order of A-Z. Thus if attacker manages to figure out the shift index he can easily find out all the characters in the given cipher text. Besides making the shift index dynamic we can also shuffle the alphabetical order by which the alphabets won’t be substituted as per the default alphabetic order. For example on a shift index of 4 if we were suppose to substitute character “a”, by alphabetical order the new character would be “d”. However if we do not follow alphabetical order and replace the characters basis of shuffled set of characters it will make it difficult for attacker to derive the plain text. For this we need to have a shuffled set of alphabets.


Enhanced Caesar cipher can be implemented in following manner:

  1. Determine the shift index on the basis of string length.
  2. Determine the position of character to be replaced in the shuffled string.
  3. Add the shift index to the position to determine the position of new character.
  4. Determine the character at new position. If the new position is more than the length of the shuffled set then loop again after the loop index reaches the length of shuffled set.
For example
The plain text to be ciphered is “america”. The shuffled subset is “adwxyzefijklmnoghpqrstbcuv”. The cipher for this will be “frnagyf”. In this example “a” is substituted with “e”. For this substitution we 1st determine the position of “a” in shuffled subset. This is 1. Now we need to determine the shift index, which is length of string i.e. 7. Thus with a right shift of 7,”a” gives “f” as per the shuffled set. Similar substitution process will be applied to each character in the given word.

The Outcome

An enhanced cipher technique derived from a simple substitution cipher is much effective compared to its original version.

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