Log in

Previous Entry | Next Entry

Secure historical communication

Something occurred to me just now whilst I was in the shower.

(I do some of my best thinking in the shower)

Let's go back into history for a moment, and take a couple of fictional countries.

Lets say... I, Brendicus, Supreme Potentate of Brendanistan, receive a diplomatic letter from Queen Juli of the Julites, basically saying
"Dear Esteemed and Supreme Potentate,

Couldn't help but notice my catapults are looking a little dusty lately, and I happened to hear that Lord Enemy, of EnemyBurg, was insulting our mutual god. What say you and I pool our forces together, take a run at the border, throw a few thousand troops at the problem, and see which ones don't die? Then we shall have dinner in the ruins of his palace.

Hope to see you on the border,

Queen Juli of the Julites, mistress of all she surveys, protector of the makeup mines of MACland, etc etc, flourish, titles, etc."

I take a look at the letter, delivered by her trusted vizier. It has her seal on it, unbroken.

How do I verify that its her seal, and not a forgery? Who is my guy, in a historical context, that can tell me "yep, that the Julite seal, alright. Looks valid to me, boss!" ... or the guy who can tell me what the Julite seal looks like in the first place.

I do wonder how secure communication (within the context and limits of the time, of course), was achieved.


( 9 comments — Leave a comment )
Jan. 24th, 2010 07:01 am (UTC)
They would smoke signal a description of the guy that was sent out, and verify. Yep.
Jan. 24th, 2010 07:35 am (UTC)
There would be a second message sent to the Julites ambassador in your court to verify the contents of your message. Also, your message would be analyzed by your scholars, and the seal would be verified by looking it up in the Great Book of Seals in the royal library.
Jan. 24th, 2010 07:37 am (UTC)
That said, a "Lets invade EnemyBurg" proposal would also involve some negotiation, and would require more discussion than a single letter. How many troops? Where are they to be deployed? Should one nation pay a "war dowry" to the stronger one to equalize the contributions?
Jan. 24th, 2010 09:57 am (UTC)
Sure, but that gets away from the intent of the question, which goes to the idea of "How do I know I can trust the letter that was just handed to me?"

Jan. 24th, 2010 11:26 pm (UTC)
You don't.

So you reply yourself using your seal and see what the reply you get is.

Which is not fool proof, if anyone is stirring mischief then they will have accounted for that. Of course your spies in the other nations court will confirm that the message arrived and with the correct arrivee.

Multiple layers of authentication and security. Of course you could go invade, subjugate and then you know it's authentic and you still get to decide if you want to go to war with EnemyBurg who may already have decided to do so due to your aggressive actions, whilst sending you a message asking why you didn't invite them in on an alliance to crush your mutual foe?
Jan. 24th, 2010 08:34 am (UTC)
What Rask said.

Seals were a big deal. Hard to replicate, and carried severe penalties for even attempting to do so. Important messages were also carried by trusted (and known) messengers. You didn't get UPS to drop it off for you.
On top of that, very important messages were carried by people of importance. They'd still hand over the document with the regnant's seal, to show that they were speaking officially.

Occasionally code was used, not for security, but veracity.
Jan. 24th, 2010 09:56 am (UTC)
I do wonder how easy it was to forge/duplicate still, or at least pass false messages. In Roman times, at least the cursus publicus would have lended some veracity... but what about the times after?
Jan. 24th, 2010 07:52 pm (UTC)
I can loan you my copy of The Code Book by Simon Singh, it's a handy reference for code/cryptography from the time of Egypt to quantum cryptography.
Jan. 24th, 2010 09:01 pm (UTC)
In most cases, the recipient of a message would already have a copy of the seal in their possession against which to verify the authenticity of the letter. (I should clarify; they would have a piece of wax or lead or whatever that had the impression of the seal in it, and not the seal itself) (c.f. 'Da Big Book of Seals', above). Seals are damned hard to duplicate which accounts for their popularity. Even today, seals carved into ivory, jade or soapstone are used in China on frivolous things like contracts or banking transactions.

The problem, as you already allude to, is what happens if someone has stolen the seal, or written and sealed a letter in bad faith, yadda yadda. Well...that seems akin to me logging into your computer and sending out an e-mail as Emperor Bren (Brendinus Maximus?). Is there a way to account for that possibility in our modern world?

I suspect, but cannot verify, that the other portion of the equation would be the script itself (so few people were literate that the writing would likely have come from only a very few possible sources, and that an unfamiliar script would be a warning to send an ambassador to Empress Juli and ask for a more complete explanation...).

Thoughts for the day from a fatigued, achey and somewhat hungover Badger...
( 9 comments — Leave a comment )