Secrets of Encryption and Data Security Protection

Publication date: June 9, 2023

By Sanja Pavlović Šijanović, Leading Teacher Croatia and Davor Šijanović, Gymnasium Vukovar

Cryptography is a fascinating field that involves secrets, intrigue, games, and puzzles. Therefore, it is not surprising that humanity has been fascinated by it since ancient times. An interestingly told story, well-designed logical challenges, and a created dynamic atmosphere attract the interest of students, raise their level of motivation, and increase their desire for new knowledge.

By solving logical challenges in which students take on the role of cipher creators (cryptographers) and their breakers (cryptanalysts), students learn and develop creativity and logical thinking through play. Teaching enriched with a playful dimension allows the student to explore, think, make decisions, solve problems, communicate, collaborate, and has a positive effect on the learning process.

Secrets of Encryption and Data Security Protection

Students and teachers from Gymnasium Vukovar designed and organized a public event called “Secrets of Encryption and Data Security Protection” aimed at elementary school students in the Vukovar area. They created an escape room in the youth department “Spajalica” at the Vukovar City Library, preparing four workshops and a series of four puzzles and challenges.

Each workshop was given a name according to the devised challenge, and students solved the challenges in teams made up of students from different elementary schools, while Gymnasium Vukovar students moderated each challenge and provided all the necessary information to help elementary school students successfully complete them.

As they passed through the workshops, students were introduced to examples of classical cryptography, made Skital and Jeffersonian cipher devices, and created and decoded their own encrypted messages using Pigpen and Polybius square. During breaks, they discovered the secret of Dan Brown’s Cryptex and, from the prepared parts, made, set up, and applied their own Cryptex.

Workshop: Encrypt and Decrypt with Scytale

On the workshop “Encrypt and Decrypt with Scytale”, the moderators from the Vukovar Gymnasium introduced elementary school students to a device for encryption that was used by the ancient Greeks for secret communication in the 5th century BC. The device was called Scytale and was made of a wooden stick around which a thin strip of leather or parchment would be wound, and then the letters would be written vertically on it. When the strip was unwound from the stick, the message written on it would become illegible and could only be read by the person who had a stick of the same diameter.

The task was to make a Scytale from the provided materials (a round cardboard stick, scissors, marker, tape, and paper) and decipher the given message. The obtained message contained advice on secure data protection and was the key to accessing the second workshop and the second challenge.

“Puzzles of the Jefferson Cipher”

At the workshop “Puzzles of the Jefferson Cipher”, the students were greeted with yogurt cups, strips for randomly printing letters of the alphabet, markers, glue, cipher key, and a encrypted message. Although all the students knew that Thomas Jefferson was the (third) President of the United States, they were not aware that he invented the cylindrical cipher system and that the US Navy has been using the device since 1922.

In order to decipher the message using the given key, the students had to make the device to move on to the next challenge. This message also contained advice on secure data protection in an online environment.

“Security Challenge with Pigpen Cipher”

At the third workshop “Security Challenge with Pigpen Cipher”, the students learned that the cipher was also used by the Freemasons for secret communication, as well as on medals, certificates, and gravestones, and is therefore also known as the Masonic Cipher.

As part of the challenge, using the Pigpen table, students had to decipher a question about the method of collecting user data and then encrypt the answer.

The moderators of this workshop had the task of pointing out the dangers of exposing personal data, as personal security becomes increasingly threatened every day, and explaining methods of collecting data using cookie files, tracking Google searches and ISPs, and various cloud computing services. The obtained encrypted answer led the students to the fourth workshop.

“Encrypt and Decrypt with the Polybius Square”

At the fourth workshop “Encrypt and Decrypt with the Polybius Square”, students were greeted by a 5 x 5 square containing letters of the alphabet. They learned that it was a device invented by the ancient Greeks and made famous by historian and scientist Polybius. Using the square, students were supposed to decrypt a message containing information about the importance of setting secure passwords.

Although students know that a password serves as a passport to personal information and its purpose is to protect data, it was not bad to point out that it is not desirable to use the same password and username everywhere, just as it is important that the password should be a randomly chosen combination of letters, numbers, and symbols and regularly updated.

Along with the task of decrypting the message, students were supposed to use the square to encrypt a piece of advice about secure data protection in online environments using passwords.

By solving clever challenges and providing correct answers, the students arrived at the final code that unlocked the rewards. All participants of the event received certificates of participation and special prizes provided by the Vukovar City Library and Vukovar Gymnasium.

During breaks, the students could test the Cryptex encryption device made with a 3D printer by Dan Brown and assemble and apply their own Cryptex using the prepared parts. Additionally, they had the opportunity to learn how Dan Brown skillfully combined fiction, facts, and conspiracy theories to tell an exciting story known as “The Da Vinci Code”.

The presentation on the topic of data protection was an integral part of the event, and students could expand their knowledge about threats and methods of data protection as well as the importance of responsible behavior towards personal data at any time, all with the aim of avoiding unwanted consequences.

The content of the presentation aimed to show how important it is to be aware of risks and pay attention to data security in the online world.

The public event “Secrets of Encryption and Data Security Protection” gathered children and young people and provided them with a two-hour interactive participation in challenges through which they gained new knowledge in the field of cryptography, while at the same time raising awareness of the importance of protecting and preserving data with the aim of using data in a suitable, responsible and secure manner.