Math in the Media

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Mathematical Digest

Short Summaries of Articles about Mathematics
in the Popular Press

"The Key Vanishes: Scientist Outlines Unbreakable Code," by Gina Kolata.New York Times, 20 February 2001, pages D1, D4.

This article discusses new cryptographic research by Harvard computer scientistMichael O. Rabin. Rabin and his graduate student Yan Zong Bing have discovereda way to encode messages so that the code is irretrievable. This is the firsttime that such a scheme has been proven mathematically to work. Codes are usedin everything from everyday banking to national security to encrypt sensitiveinformation. One who discovers the code encrypting a message can decrypt themessage. "But," the article notes, "with Dr. Rabin's system, the message stayssecret forever because the code uses a stream of random numbers that areplugged into the key for encoding and decoding. The numbers are never stored ina computer's memory, so they essentially vanish as the message is beingencrypted and decrypted." Whether this new development will have practicalimportance is unclear. The article notes that there are ways to get aroundencryptions that do not involve breaking codes.

--- Allyn Jackson