Substitution cipher

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In cryptography, a substitution cipher is a method of encryption by which units of plaintext are replaced with ciphertext according to a regular system; the "units" may be single letters (the most common), pairs of letters, triplets of letters, mixtures of the above, and so forth. The receiver deciphers the text by performing an inverse substitution.

Substitution ciphers can be compared with transposition ciphers. In a transposition cipher, the units of the plaintext are rearranged in a different and usually quite complex order, but the units themselves are left unchanged. By contrast, in a substitution cipher, the units of the plaintext are retained in the same sequence in the ciphertext, but the units themselves are altered.

There are a number of different types of substitution cipher. If the cipher operates on single letters, it is termed a simple substitution cipher; a cipher that operates on larger groups of letters is termed polygraphic. A monoalphabetic cipher uses fixed substitution over the entire message, whereas a polyalphabetic cipher uses a number of substitutions at different times in the message, where a unit from the plaintext is mapped to one of several possibilities in the ciphertext and vice-versa.


Simple substitution

Substitution over a single letter—simple substitution—can be demonstrated by writing out the alphabet in some order to represent the substitution. This is termed a substitution alphabet. The cipher alphabet may be shifted or reversed (creating the Caesar and Atbash ciphers, respectively) or scrambled in a more complex fashion, in which case it is called a mixed alphabet or deranged alphabet. Traditionally, mixed alphabets are created by first writing out a keyword, removing repeated letters in it, then writing all the remaining letters in the alphabet.


Using this system, the keyword "zebras" gives us the following alphabets:

A message of

flee at once. we are discovered!

enciphers to


Traditionally, the ciphertext is written out in blocks of fixed length, omitting punctuation and spaces; this is done to help avoid transmission errors and to disguise word boundaries from the plaintext. These blocks are called "groups", and sometimes a "group count" (i.e., the number of groups) is given as an additional check. Five letter groups are traditional, dating from when messages used to be transmitted by telegraph:


If the length of the message happens not to be divisible by five, it may be padded at the end with "nulls". These can be any characters that decrypt to obvious nonsense, so the receiver can easily spot them and discard them.

The ciphertext alphabet is sometimes different from the plaintext alphabet; for example, in the pigpen cipher, the ciphertext consists of a set of symbols derived from a grid. For example:

An example pigpen message

Such features make little difference to the security of a scheme, however — at the very least, any set of strange symbols can be transcribed back into an A-Z alphabet and dealt with as normal.

In lists and catalogues for sales people sometimes a very simple encryption is used to replace numeric digits by letters.

Plain digits: 1234567890
Ciphertext alphabet: MAKEPROFIT [1]

Example: MAT would be used to represent 120.

[edit] Security for simple substitution ciphers

A disadvantage of this method of derangement is that the last letters of the alphabet (which are mostly low frequency) tend to stay at the end. A stronger way of constructing a mixed alphabet is to perform a columnar transposition on the ordinary alphabet using the keyword, but this is not often done.

Although the number of possible keys is very large (26! ≈ 288.4, or about 88 bits), this cipher is not very strong, being easily broken. Provided the message is of reasonable length (see below), the cryptanalyst can deduce the probable meaning of the most common symbols by analyzing the frequency distribution of the ciphertext—frequency analysis. This allows formation of partial words, which can be tentatively filled in, progressively expanding the (partial) solution (see frequency analysis for a demonstration of this). In some cases, underlying words can also be determined from the pattern of their letters; for example, attract, osseous, and words with those two as the root are the only common English words with the pattern ABBCADB. Many people solve such ciphers for recreation, as with cryptogram puzzles in the newspaper.

According to the unicity distance of English, 27.6 letters of ciphertext are required to crack a mixed alphabet simple substitution. In practice, typically about 50 letters are needed, although some messages can be broken with fewer if unusual patterns are found. In other cases, the plaintext can be contrived to have a nearly flat frequency distribution, and much longer plaintexts will then be required by the user.

[edit] Homophonic substitution

The forged nomenclator message used in the Babington Plot.

An early attempt to increase the difficulty of frequency analysis attacks on substitution ciphers was to disguise plaintext letter frequencies by homophony. In these ciphers, plaintext letters map to more than one ciphertext symbol. Usually, the highest-frequency plaintext symbols are given more equivalents than lower frequency letters. In this way, the frequency distribution is flattened, making analysis more difficult.

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