Machine Language Translation Used To Expose Secret Society Of Spies

A fascinating article from Wired, about a secret cult that
spied on the Free Masons exposed after the cipher was broken on a secret
document.

Not only is the story of how the cipher was broken
fascinating.  The fact that there was a
secret order that specialized in cryptography and disguised themselves as ocular
surgeons is like something out of a Dan Brown novel.

The cryptograph they invented is also fascinating mixing a variety
of techniques.  I love that it was so meticulously
detailed so that even the plain roman characters they used to represent blank
spaces were used in pattern to make them look like they were actually part of a
substitution cipher, amazing.

For more than 260 years, the contents of that page—and the details of this ritual—remained a secret. They were hidden in a coded manuscript, one of thousands produced by secret societies in the 18th and 19th centuries. At the peak of their power, these clandestine organizations, most notably the Freemasons, had hundreds of thousands of adherents, from colonial New York to imperial St. Petersburg. Dismissed today as fodder for conspiracy theorists and History Channel specials, they once served an important purpose: Their lodges were safe houses where freethinkers could explore everything from the laws of physics to the rights of man to the nature of God, all hidden from the oppressive, authoritarian eyes of church and state. But largely because they were so secretive, little is known about most of these organizations. Membership in all but the biggest died out over a century ago, and many of their encrypted texts have remained uncracked, dismissed by historians as impenetrable novelties.

It was actually an accident that brought to light the symbolic “sight-restoring” ritual. The decoding effort started as a sort of game between two friends that eventually engulfed a team of experts in disciplines ranging from machine translation to intellectual history. Its significance goes far beyond the contents of a single cipher. Hidden within coded manuscripts like these is a secret history of how esoteric, often radical notions of science, politics, and religion spread underground. At least that’s what experts believe. The only way to know for sure is to break the codes.

In this case, as it happens, the cracking began in a restaurant in Germany.

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