The National Cipher Challenge has been run by the University of Southampton Mathematics Department since 2002 and has attracted a wide following. We count Cabinet Ministers, media scientists, journalists, authors and actors among our fans. We even had the pleasure of introducing the Cipher Challenge team from Saint Anne’s School in Southampton to the Duke of Edinburgh who, remembering his work in the second world war immediately fell in love with the competition and gave Harry a reading list for the summer.
The real fans though are the competitors who take part every year until they are too old, by which time it is too late and they are hooked. Many of them go on to careers in cyber security and others follow other paths using the mathematics and computing skills they learned tackling our fiendish challenges.
Julian went on to study Discrete Mathematics and made it to the Grand Final of the UK National Cyber Security Championship in 2013, following in the footsteps of the 2008 National Cipher Challenge winner, Jonathan Millican, who was crowned winner of the UK National Cyber Security Championship the previous year. Naomi Andrew, who operates under a code name as one of the Elves on the site, took part from Year 8 until she was sadly too old to compete, but managed to stay involved as a student at Southampton. She is now studying for her PhD here and we like to think the Cipher Challenge had an important part to play in that journey.
Competitors take part by breaking codes and ciphers that are published week by week on the challenge pages, throughout the competition and submitting their answers on that page. Each challenge comes as two parts, part A and part B, and together they add up to a short story. The ciphers get harder as the competition progresses and competitors can download certificates recording their progress. You can read more about it here on this page and elsewhere on the site.
Even if you can’t or don’t want to take part in the competition there is a lot here for you to enjoy.
Alongside the materials we have produced you will find everything you need to be a successful code-breaker.
We have a library full of suggestions of great books, fact and fiction, links to a whole range of videos on topics related to maths, computing and codebreaking, even a guest lecture by one of our alumni describing how he learned python to break the challenge.
We have some basic cipher tools you can use to get started including a Caesar wheel, an affine shift encryption machine and a frequency analyser to help you break down and find patterns in a ciphertext. In our cryptanalyst handbook you can find instructions to build your own cipher machines, including the simple cipher wheel and tis more sophisticated cousin the affine shift cipher wheel. Or you can go a step further and explore the fascinating Enigma machine and its cardboard twin, the Pringle Can Enigma Machine.
It was said by Niels Ferguson, one of the leading cryptographers of his generation, that cryptography was “just about the most fun you can have with mathematics”. As professional mathematicians we can think of a few others too, but we largely agree with that and hope that the Cipher Challenge will convince you too.
This edition of the competition
This is the 22nd edition of the competition and takes up where last year’s story finished. It doesn’t matter if you missed it, this story is self contained and you will quickly catch up with what is going on. Harry is taking a well deserved break at a Country House in New England. Jodie has sent him a copy of Agatha Christie’s “The Body in the Library”. The rest is destiny …
You can download lessons and notes on codebreaking from the resources page on the competition website. Alongside the materials we have produced you will find links to books, online videos and help guides that contain everything you need to be a successful code-breaker. You can even build your own cipher machines, including the simple cipher wheel and the more complicated Pringle Can Enigma Machine.
Who is the competition for?
The competition is for everyone, the prizes are more restricted! We no longer collect personal information about competitors unless you are in line for a prize, so anyone can take part. The prizes are restricted to UK residents in full time school or 6th form level education, and if you are a contender for one of these we will be in touch at the end of the competition using our Messaging system to verify eligibility. We can’t email you because we don’t ask for your email unless you register as a teacher, and you will see a flag on the top right of every site page if you have a message waiting for you.
If you need to get in touch with us, you can do that via the forum, or by email to Harry at [email protected].
How to register and join in
There is no charge to register or take part, and all you need to get involved is a reasonably modern web browser. We publish news about the competition on Twitter and you can keep up to date by following us there.
Your account will also allow you to join in on the BOSS Forums, where you can discuss a whole range of things connected to the competition, and quite a few that are totally unrelated.
Registration will open on September 6th and the first practice round for the competition will be published at 3pm on October 5th. The first three rounds on 5th, 12th and 19th October are designed as a warm up, and while we will publish leader boards, the marks for those challenges won’t count towards the final competition standings. The main competition starts with episode 4 on November 2nd, with the remaining challenges published weekly until December 14th. NOTE: all times stated on the site refer to current UK time. The clocks change back from British Summer time at around 2am on Sunday October 29th and our competition clock will reset to GMT.
Scoring the Challenge
There are two parallel competitions, part A and part B, and you can take part in one or both (or neither, but why would you?) Competition B is scored for speed and accuracy. We use the Damerau-Levenshtein distance to determine how accurate you are and break up the time into bands each worth a certain number of points. For each round you can submit more than once, and we mark each of your submissions. We then take your most accurate submission and award the appropriate time points to give a pair of numbers (accuracy out of 100, time points) and then use this to rank team entries. Accuracy is ALWAYS more important than speed. Speed does matter, but you do not have to rush to download the first challenges immediately as you have a day or two in which you can still get top marks. In later challenges speed will become important, and the full schedule of marks is published on the Challenge pages so you can see how quickly you will need to get started in each round.
Challenge A is intended for less experienced code breakers, so typically the challenges are a bit easier. You will be able to download certificates showing you how well you did in each round as well as your placing in the overall competition after each round.
The first three challenges should be thought of as a “warm-up” exercise and will not count in the final leader board rankings, however it is still worth tackling them as they give excellent practice and they do develop the storyline. You can submit multiple times to each round and will find feedback on each submission in your account pages, though we sometimes delay that to keep things interesting. Resubmission can never lower your mark and can improve it, so don’t be disheartened if you make a mistake. Have another go!.
You can read about the prizes for the competition on the page Prizes, Medals and Certificates.