Cerf: Secret wartime projects drove 'incredible' advances

The Enigma cypher machine used by the German military in World War II is still a tough nut to crack today. The total number of ways it can be configured for every letter is around 150 million million million. That's enough to keep it beyond the reach of all but the most determined of brute force attacks.

MAIN ARTICLE: Tech world preps to honor 'Father of Computer Science' Alan Turing, as centenary nears

IN PICTURES: Alan Turing in the media

So how were the late Alan Turing (whose 100th birthday is being celebrated in academic circles this June) and his fellow Bletchley Park code-breakers able to crack the Enigma and provide the Allies with such priceless intelligence?

To begin with, Google Internet evangelist Vint Cerf says, there was a lot more to it than raw computational genius.

"It's not entirely a result of the hardware. It's also people making extraordinary guesses about what might have been encoded, the formats, date and time of transmission; all these other things factored into the tactics for trying to break a particular message," he says.

Today's hackers would instantly recognize some of the British techniques for hacking German messages as social engineering -- on a grand scale.

One British trick called for the Royal Air Force to drop sea mines at a location where they would be sure to be noticed by the Germans -- which would invariably prompt a notification that "the British have mined grid coordinates x,y." The British could then work on that message with the knowledge that the German message would include those coordinates, giving them a substantial leg-up.

BACKGROUND: Still trying to crack Nazi Enigma messages

"These are called chosen plaintext attacks, and they are perniciously powerful. They're the sort of thing that any cryptographer really hates," Cerf says with a laugh.

Nevertheless, the advances in computing technology -- particularly Turing's Bombe, created to automatically crack Enigma messages -- were staggering, and also essential to the code-breaking effort.

"It's incredible what people did during World War II," says Cerf. "Given the crappy computational capabilities they had, and the very limited hardware that they could build, it's amazing what they got away with."

Email Jon Gold at jgold@nww.com and follow him on Twitter at @NWWJonGold.

Read more about wide area network in Network World's Wide Area Network section.

Join the CSO newsletter!

Error: Please check your email address.
Show Comments

Featured Whitepapers

Editor's Recommendations

Solution Centres

Stories by Jon Gold

Latest Videos

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: Will your data protection strategy be enough when disaster strikes?

    Speakers: - Paul O’Connor, Engagement leader - Performance Audit Group, Victorian Auditor-General’s Office (VAGO) - Nigel Phair, Managing Director, Centre for Internet Safety - Joshua Stenhouse, Technical Evangelist, Zerto - Anthony Caruana, CSO MC & Moderator

    Play Video

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: The Human Factor - Your people are your biggest security weakness

    ​Speakers: David Lacey, Researcher and former CISO Royal Mail David Turner - Global Risk Management Expert Mark Guntrip - Group Manager, Email Protection, Proofpoint

    Play Video

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: Current ransomware defences are failing – but machine learning can drive a more proactive solution

    Speakers • Ty Miller, Director, Threat Intelligence • Mark Gregory, Leader, Network Engineering Research Group, RMIT • Jeff Lanza, Retired FBI Agent (USA) • Andy Solterbeck, VP Asia Pacific, Cylance • David Braue, CSO MC/Moderator What to expect: ​Hear from industry experts on the local and global ransomware threat landscape. Explore a new approach to dealing with ransomware using machine-learning techniques and by thinking about the problem in a fundamentally different way. Apply techniques for gathering insight into ransomware behaviour and find out what elements must go into a truly effective ransomware defence. Get a first-hand look at how ransomware actually works in practice, and how machine-learning techniques can pick up on its activities long before your employees do.

    Play Video

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: Get real about metadata to avoid a false sense of security

    Speakers: • Anthony Caruana – CSO MC and moderator • Ian Farquhar, Worldwide Virtual Security Team Lead, Gigamon • John Lindsay, Former CTO, iiNet • Skeeve Stevens, Futurist, Future Sumo • David Vaile - Vice chair of APF, Co-Convenor of the Cyberspace Law And Policy Community, UNSW Law Faculty This webinar covers: - A 101 on metadata - what it is and how to use it - Insight into a typical attack, what happens and what we would find when looking into the metadata - How to collect metadata, use this to detect attacks and get greater insight into how you can use this to protect your organisation - Learn how much raw data and metadata to retain and how long for - Get a reality check on how you're using your metadata and if this is enough to secure your organisation

    Play Video

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: How banking trojans work and how you can stop them

    CSO Webinar: How banking trojans work and how you can stop them Featuring: • John Baird, Director of Global Technology Production, Deutsche Bank • Samantha Macleod, GM Cyber Security, ME Bank • Sherrod DeGrippo, Director of Emerging Threats, Proofpoint (USA)

    Play Video

More videos

Blog Posts

Market Place