Among the professions I’m credited with is cryptologist. A reader asks, what in the world is a cryptologist. The Cambridge Dictionary defines cryptologist as “an expert in the study of codes.” Another source on the internet (not identified) explains that “Cryptologists analyze and interpret data and data patterns to decipher and generate encoded signals.”

I’m not satisfied with either of those definitions because they fail to distinguish between cipher and code. Cipher is a method for transforming plaintext into an unintelligible series of characters, usually digits. Code is the substitution of a plaintext value with letters or digits so as to hide the meaning of the text. Cipher usually employs a mathematical system whereas code is simple replacement.

Cipher is often more secure—that is, less susceptible to breaking—than code. Sometimes a cryptosystem will first encode a text, then encipher the code. That adds security. An encoded text enciphered using a one-time pad, constantly changing and never repeating digital keys, is unbreakable.

As an employee at the National Security Agency (NSA), I was professionalized (that is, subjected to rigorous standards of performance, knowledge, and experience and affirmed as proficient) in multiple disciplines including foreign languages (seven), traffic analysis (study of the externals of intercepted signals), cryptanalysis (the breaking of codes and ciphers), and intelligence analysis. Only when professionalized in multiple disciplines could one be honored with the title of cryptologist. I was thus honored.

To this day, I am humbled by the title.

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