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[Ciphers for beginners] Chapter 2: Binary-to-text encodings

[Ciphers for beginners] Chapter 2: Binary-to-text encodings
In last chapter, we talked about how characters could be encoded using different numeral systems. We'll stay on the topic of encodings a bit longer to talk about binary-to-text encodings. Those algorithms are used by computers to exchange any sort of data using only a restricted set of characters. Nowadays, it is not rare to see them used in ARGs to encrypt messages.
Before we dive further into this topic, note that those encodings can be used to represent any data, not only text. You could use a binary-to-text encoding to represent the data of an image or a soundtrack, for example.


The most famous of those encodings is called Base64. If you read the previous chapter, then you might already guess where this is going. Base64 can be considered as a numeral system that uses 64 characters: A to Z, a to z, 0 to 9 and the characters + and /. With each of those is associated an index, using the index table below:
The Base64 index table
To encode using Base64, each character from the plaintext must first be converted to its corresponding ASCII binary code. Then, each group of 6 bits is converted to a Base64 character by using the index table.
Using Base64, the message "ARG" would be encoded as "QVJH".
How Base64 encoding works
Because bytes contain 8 bits each, 3 bytes (3 x 8 = 24 bits) can be encoded as 4 Base64 characters (4 x 6 = 24 bits). For this reason, most Base64 messages have a length that is a multiple of 4. A 65th character, =, is usually used at the end to pad the length of the message if need be.
There also exists a number of variants of Base64, using different characters in place of +, / and =. But don't worry too much about this: ARGs that use Base64 usually choose the most common version of it.


Other similar encodings exist, such as Base32, which uses only 32 characters: A to Z and 2 to 7, with again optional = for padding.
The Base32 index table
It works the same way as Base64 but the bits are grouped by 5 this time. 5 bytes of data (5 x 8 = 40 bits) are encoded using 8 Base32 characters (8 x 5 = 40 bits). If the length of the result is not a multiple of 8 already, it is usually padded using the extra character =.
Using Base64, the message "ARG" would be encoded as "IFJEO===".
How Base32 encoding works
Again, just like for Base64, note that there exists different variants of Base32, using different sets of characters.

Base58, Base91

Still in the same vein, you might on rare occasions encounter less used text-to-binary encodings.
For example, Base58 uses the same characters as Base64 but omits 0, O, I, l, + and /.
Base91 uses almost all printable ASCII characters except the space, the dash, the backslash and the apostrophe.
They work a bit differently than Base64 but considering they are rarely used, there’s probably no need to dive into their precise behavior. Just try to remember they exist, so that you’re ready once you encounter them!


Base36 is yet another binary-to-text encoding, this time using the characters A to Z and 0 to 9. It can in fact really be seen as a normal numeral system, where you count from 0 to 9, then goes on with A (10 in decimal) up to Z (35 in decimal). To write 36 in Base36, you would need to add another digit, leading to 10. And so on...
An interesting fact about this encoding is that it can be used to hide an alphanumeric message by actually decoding from Base36. Indeed, any alphanumeric message (with no space) is a valid Base36 number! For example, ARG in Base36 is 13948 in decimal.
Base36 to decimal conversion


Finally, let's also mention the encoding called Ascii85, sometimes referred to as Base85. The original version of it uses the characters 0 to 9, A to Z, a to u, !"#$%'()*+,-./:;<=>[email protected][\]^_, the backtick ​` and sometimes y and z.
Another version, created by Adobe, uses the same alphabet but added <~ and ~> delimiters around the code.
And last but not least, it exists a version called Z85, which uses the characters 0 to 9, a to z, A to Z, and .-:+=^!/*?&<>()[]{}@%$#.
The algorithm for Ascii85 is a bit more complex than the previous ones but explaining it is probably not needed. Don’t worry though, you can easily find online tools to do the decoding for you!

Quickly identify binary-to-text encoding

Phew, what a mess, right? Let's sum this up real quick.
When you encounter a coded message that contains a bunch of characters without space, ask yourself the following questions.
Does it have one or more = at the end? This is characteristic of Base32 and Base64.
Does it contain both uppercase and lowercase letters? Try Base64 or, less likely, Base58.
Does it contain only uppercase letters and digits but you can't find any 0, 1, 8, or 9? You should probably try decoding it with Base32.
Does it contain weird symbol characters? Looks like Base91 or a variant of Ascii85.
Does it start with <~ and/or ends with ~>? This is most likely the Adobe variant of Ascii85.
Those questions should help you narrow down the numerous decoding options at your disposal.


You can find online tools to decode all the binary-to-text encodings listed in this chapter. Here is a non-exhaustive list of them:
As you might have guessed, any base could actually be used to encode binary data, given the proper index table or algorithm. This chapter focused on the most popular ones, that you might encounter in ARGs.
See you in the next chapter!
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