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What is Cryptography?

On paper, Kim Philby made the perfect MI6 agent. Born into Britain’s upper class, he was well-connected as the son of an empire official, well-educated by private institutions in his formative years before graduating from Cambridge, and well-travelled as a journalist for The Times stationed in Spain to cover the civil war. Calm and poised in demeanour, Philby quickly climbed the ranks of the British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), until finally heading the anti-Soviet division, which attempted to zero-in on communist-related espionage activities during the Cold War. The problem was, Philby was the very spy his division was dedicated to catching.

Philby would not be identified as a double agent for almost twenty years, until a man by the name Igor Gouzenko walked into the RCMP office in the 1960s with documents revealing spy activities taking place in Canada, Britain and the US. Though the materials did not outright name Philby, as a cipher clerk for the Soviet embassy based in Ottawa, Gouzenko had access to code books which allowed him to decipher enough information to direct attention to Philby.

“I had the chance to personally handle those documents that he had smuggled out of the embassy,” says Colin MacGregor Stevens or Captain Stevens, who, in addition to his military service with the Seaforth Highlanders of Canada and the Canadian Scottish Regiment, also has over forty years of experience working with local museums. “Spies, traitors and even a member of Parliament, Fred Rose, was exposed by the documents that Gouzenko had come out with.”

For Captain Stevens, these encrypted documents, which were credited for triggering the events that led to the Cold War, are central to history. Unlike codes that swap out the name of a person or event with another word to hide their true meaning, ciphers substitute entire strings of letters through a step-by-step formula known as an algorithm. Getting access to a cipher’s key, like Gouzenko did, can lead to a wealth of top-secret information.

“Codebreaking tells you the bigger story,” says Captains Stevens.

And so do the people behind the code. Louis Levi Oakes, who was awarded the Congressional Silver Medal in 2016, was one of 17 Kanienʼkéha code talkers in WWII from the Akwesasne Mohawk Territory. Because information was encrypted with a language few had access to, the work Oakes and his team did was considered unbreakable. Similarly, Charles “Checker” Tompkins left Saskatchewan to be stationed at an American 8th Air Force with the responsibility of encrypting classified and sensitive information into Cree. While the ability to speak their language was vital to the success of winning the war, Oakes and Tompkins both served in a time where it was illegal for First Nations peoples to practice religious ceremonies and government instituted residential schools had been established to sever Indigenous children from their cultural ties including language.

For those who did not have the upper hand of unbreakable ciphers, code breaks led to some of the most pivotal moments in history. Most notably, information intercepted and deciphered in North Africa and Japan resulted in the liberation of Western Europe from Nazi Germany on June 6, 1944, also known as D-Day.

“The Japanese had diplomats in Germany who would send reports thinking that nobody could read their signals,” says Captain Stevens. “The fact was that British and Americans had broken most of their codes.”

Today, encryption is an essential part of secure communication in technology, with email providers and messaging services all ensuring it as a standard part of their privacy. Without end-to-end encryption, which ensures both the recipient and sender are communicating without visibility to others, non-secure forms of communication can be intercepted by surveillance technologies.

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From untangling metal loops to getting a toy “climber” to the top of a mountain by picking exactly the right pegs, you’ll give your brain an exhilarating workout. Nothing is as it seems in our illusions area.