For Schools: the 2016 Alan Turing Cryptography Competition

Black-and-white photo of Alan TuringPerhaps this article is a bit of a repeat which makes it a bit of a cheat, but some things do crop up year after year and it has been edited for fact-checking and freshness.

This site previously discussed the National Cipher Challenge, held for teams of full-time students under 18 years of age. Happily, the cryptography season is not just one competition long each year; ever since the University of Manchester’s School of Mathematics celebrated the centenary of the birth of Alan Turing in 2012, each year there has been a cryptography competition for school students. 2016 sees the fifth edition; the first chapter – and thus the first cipher to solve – is released tomorrow, probably at around 4pm or so.

Prizes are available, but only for teams consisting of no more than four pre-Sixth-Form participants, so the limit is year 11 in England and Wales, S4 in Scotland and year 12 in Northern Ireland. There is provision for non-competitive teams to take part without scoring; here there is no restriction on numbers or ages so teams featuring overage students, teachers, parents or members of the general public outside the education system can take part purely for the fun of it. This year also sees the first edition of a sibling team mathematics competition, MathsBombe, which runs along somewhat similar lines and where Sixth Form students are allowed to play.

The competition follows the story of two young cipher sleuths, Mike and Ellie, as they get caught up in an adventure to unravel the Artificial Adventure. Every week or two weeks a new chapter of the story is released, each with a cryptographic puzzle to solve (…) There are six chapters in total (plus an epilogue to conclude the story). Points can be earned by cracking each code and submitting your answer.” The more quickly you crack each code, the more points you win for each of the six chapters. The chapters are released weekly at first but slow down to fortnightly as the chapters get harder and half-terms start to get in the way.

Prizes sponsored by Skyscanner (founded by two former computer scientists from the University of Manchester!) are presented to members of the three top-scoring teams overall, but each chapter also awards additional prizes to the first team to solve it correctly and spot prizes to five correctly-solving teams selected at random.

The really interesting thing is that the top prizes are awarded in person at the annual Alan Turing Cryptography Day. A video was posted of the 2015 day, and here’s a report from 2014: “Schoolchildren who had enjoyed taking part in the online competition were invited to spend an afternoon of code-breaking action in the Alan Turing Building. Nearly 200 children (…) enjoyed a wide range of activities including: interacting with Enigma machine apps running on iPads, a talk entitled `Enigma Variations: Alan Turing and the Enigma Machine’, some maths busking, a Q&A session with the competition organisers, as well as a live cryptography challenge which involved schools having to crack three codes in a one-hour period.

This site really enjoyed the part of the video where the kids at the day emphasised how much they enjoyed the live competition and the factor of time pressure. You can see where this is going! If there’s a self-selecting audience who love cracking codes against the clock, surely – surely – this would be a fantastic opportunity for an exit game (particularly one with a branch in Manchester itself – but, really, anyone anywhere, particularly one which saw itself as a national player) to become involved with sponsorship.

What would be in it for you? Especially if you can arrange a live challenge, there could be the chance to get the word out to hundreds of children who have proved themselves not only sufficiently interested in puzzles to enter a cryptography contest but sufficiently talented to do really well at it. On a very slightly cynical note, you might think of this as a way to reach 200 families, or more, who are likely to be right in the middle of your target audience and likely to want to play again and again. Seems like such a natural fit!

For Schools: the 2015 Alan Turing Cryptography Competition

Black-and-white photo of Alan TuringThis site previously discussed the National Cipher Challenge, held for teams of full-time students under 18 years of age. Happily, the cryptography season is not just one competition long each year; ever since the University of Manchester’s School of Mathematics celebrated the centenary of the birth of Alan Turing in 2012, each year there has been a cryptography competition for school students. The fourth edition, associated with the year 2015, is under way.

Prizes are available, but only for teams consisting of no more than four participants, none of whom can be in Sixth Form, so the limit is year 11 in England and Wales, S4 in Scotland and year 12 in Northern Ireland. There is provision for non-competitive teams to take part without scoring; here there is no restriction on numbers or ages so teams featuring overage students, teachers, parents or members of the general public outside the education system can take part purely for the fun of it.

The competition follows the story of two young cipher sleuths, Mike and Ellie, as they get caught up in an adventure to unravel the Carbon Conundrum. Every week or two weeks a new chapter of the story is released, each with a cryptographic puzzle to solve (…) There are six chapters in total (plus an epilogue to conclude the story). Points can be earned by cracking each code and submitting your answer.” The more quickly you crack each code, the more points you win for each of the six chapters. This year’s story hints at a grapheme theme.

Prizes sponsored by Skyscanner (founded by two former computer scientists from the University of Manchester!) are presented to members of the three top-scoring teams overall, but each chapter also awards additional prizes to the first team to solve it correctly and spot prizes to five correctly-solving teams selected at random.

The really interesting thing is that the top prizes are awarded in person at the annual Alan Turing Cryptography Day. “Schoolchildren who had enjoyed taking part in the online competition were invited to spend an afternoon of code-breaking action in the Alan Turing Building. Nearly 200 children (…) enjoyed a wide range of activities including: interacting with Enigma machine apps running on iPads, a talk entitled `Enigma Variations: Alan Turing and the Enigma Machine’, some maths busking, a Q&A session with the competition organisers, as well as a live cryptography challenge which involved schools having to crack three codes in a one-hour period.

Surely this would be a fantastic opportunity for an exit game (particularly one based in Manchester itself, but really anyone anywhere) to become involved with sponsorship. What would be in it for you? Especially if you can arrange a live challenge, there could be the chance to get the word out to 200 children who have proved themselves not only sufficiently interested in puzzles to enter a cryptography contest but sufficiently talented to do really well at it. On a very slightly cynical note, you might think of this as a way to reach 200 families, or more, who are likely to be right in the middle of your target audience and likely to want to play again and again. Seems like a natural fit!

The Imitation Game

"The Imitation Game" theatrical release poster(If Wikipedia can claim fair use for low-resolution scans of film posters, seems like fair game here…)

The Imitation Game is a recently-released film starring Benedict Cumberbatch playing Alan Turing, depicting his code-breaking work during the second World War. The titular imitation game is one form of the competition in natural language and artificial intelligence proposed by Turing which became more widely known as the Turing test; that came towards the end of a career arguably first notable for a hypothetical abstract computing device also later named after him.

So the Turing machine and the Turing test bookend his cryptographic work, which is another field where his work is still celebrated today. (His wartime papers on the subject were so influential that their contents were restricted for 70 years as a matter of national security.) The school of mathematics at the University of Manchester run an annual cryptography competition named after him; this site has already written about the University of Southampton’s National Cipher Challenge and there is some degree of similarity, though the NCC permits sixth-formers to take part and the Turing competition restricts teams to those in Years 11 and below. Registration starts in December for the next competition, expected to run through the spring term of 2015.

Cryptography isn’t just for schoolchildren, though, and nor are its competitions. While some puzzle hunts use its techniques, at least in part, and armchair treasure hunts use the field extensively, explicit competitions are less frequent. Not unknown, though; see Simon Singh on his Cipher Challenge at the end of his The Code Book. GCHQ have also occasionally run competitions like 2013’s Can You Find It?, now sadly offline.

All this leads up to another cryptography competition, open to all ages, tied in with the new movie release and featuring film merchandise donated by StudioCanal as prizes, some of it signed. There are three codes to crack (from first glance, two likely relatively accessible and one more… thematic…) whose deciphered messages provide clues as to which square on a slightly abstract map to explore for fictional buried silver.

The film has its general release in the UK this Friday, on 14th November, with the competition (whose entrants must be resident in the UK) open until midday on Friday 28th November. Happy hunting!

For Schools: the 2014 National Cipher Challenge

An old logo for the University of Southampton's National Cipher ChallengeThe “Why wasn’t there something like this back in the day?” department is delighted to learn that this year sees the thirteenth annual running of a competition by the University of Southampton’s mathematics department, entitled the National Cipher Challenge. It is aimed at – and prizes may only be won by – those aged 18 or under in school-level education within the UK and associated Crown Dependencies. Doubtless competition alumni sometimes participate hors concours, ineligible for the goodies.

This year’s competition has the following setting:

A ship taken by pirates off the port of Salalah is found drifting with a cabin full of communications equipment and attack hardened computers.

Encrypted Files on the servers reveal that the ship was used as the HQ of the Flag Day Associates, a world-wide hacking group responsible for chaos in the international community.

Could this be the break you need to bring them to justice?

It’s designed to be played by either individuals or teams; a motivated solver could participate alone as there is a fairly comprehensive background presented about cipher decryption, but another approach is for a teacher to co-ordinate a team from their school, with optional lesson plans presented. It’s suggested that these lesson plans could be used as an extension activity, or as an activity for a mathematics society. (Or a puzzle society. Why don’t more schools have puzzle societies?)

The competition is held over eight rounds from October to December. The pace is largely one round per week, though it slows down midway as different schools take half-term at different points. In each round, a new encryption technique is introduced. They start off very familiar – just a simple Caesar shift in this year’s first round – but get to some pretty meaty stuff by round eight. After the introduction, along with a considerable quantity of plaintext to advance the story, two challenges are presented using that challenge’s technique.

The first (“A”) challenge is meant to be the easier of the two, may be heavily clued by the developing story, and is marked on accuracy only; the second (“B”) challenge – this year, representing files on the servers – may be a little more difficult, or require a little additional lateral thinking, and is marked not only on accuracy but also on speed. Sensibly, the granularity of the scoring means that you don’t have to be able to start the second that the puzzles are released and solve it within minutes and seconds in order to stand a chance. The puzzle release might clash with double chemistry, after all.

As well as spot prizes along the way, the main prizes are awarded on results from the “B” challenges – and, even then, the first two rounds are used as unscored warm-ups, so it’s still not too late to register and be able to compete to win. The scores from the final six “B” challenges are combined to determine the overall winners. The top individual solver wins a grand in the hand; the top team similarly share a thou between them. (Second prize in each contest is £750, also well worth winning.) Many thanks to Trinity College Cambridge, GCHQ, IBM and Winton Capital Management for their sponsorship of the event.

Now if you’re already a National Cipher Challenge participant and love it, you might have found your way here and be thinking “That was cool. What else might I enjoy?” The answer: more than you might think. There are a number of online puzzle hunts where decryption is often a key technique, and no better place to start than the free Order of the Octothorpe. No prizes, just for fun; if you can make a decent fist of the NCC then # will probably not detain you for more than, say, a day or two during the holidays, but you’ll have some laughs (and learn some new things) along the way.

There are events in person as well – though, at time of publishing, sadly not yet really flourishing outside London – of which the annual springtime highlight is probably the global DASH event. While you have to be old enough to visit a pub in order to attend the monthly Puzzled Pint event (and some of the puzzles contain, shall we say, cultural references that skew towards those of drinking age, as well as occasional Americana where it helps to have spent decades watching classic TV shows from across the pond) there’s nothing stopping the enthusiastic but young from getting a Pint habit early.

Lastly, if you enjoy the NCC but also enjoy other sorts of puzzles – think sudoku, then think of kakuro and the other types of logic puzzles that tend to be printed near the sudoku within the better newspapers – then there are hundreds of different sorts of other puzzles that you may enjoy, where you may find example puzzles online to solve at your leisure. One good place to start is janko.at, and enjoy picking through the German language as part of the puzzle.

There are plenty of time-limited online contests that you may enjoy from time to time – see the calendar – leading up to the annual UK Puzzle Championship. (Similarly, if you’re a sudoku specialist, the UK has a championship for that too.) If you’re really good, the height to aspire to after years of practice is your national team for the World Puzzle Championship. Sweet dreams!