Puzzle History: Codebreaking and the NSA, part 3

[Image courtesy of NSA’s official Twitter account.]

At the end of part 2 in our series, we left off during the early days of the NSA, as American cryptographers continued to labor under the shadow of the Black Friday change in Russian codes.

You may have noticed that part 2 got a little farther from puzzly topics than part 1, and there’s a reason for that. As the NSA evolved and grew, codebreaking was downplayed in favor of data acquisition. The reasons for this were twofold:

1. Context. You need to understand why given encrypted information is important in order to put it toward the best possible use. As Budiansky stated in part 1, “The top translators at Bletchley were intelligence officers first, who sifted myriad pieces to
assemble an insightful whole.”

2. Russian surveillance and bugging continued to grow more clever and sophisticated, pushing attention away from codebreaking. After all, what good is breaking codes or developing new ones if they can just steal unencrypted intel firsthand by monitoring
agents in the field?

Moving forward, the NSA would continue to pursue all manner of data mining, eventually leaving behind much of the codebreaking and analysis that originally formed the backbone of the organization. But that was in years to come. Cryptography was still a major player in NSA operations from the ’50s and onward.

[The progression of “secret” and “top secret” code words.
Image courtesy of NSA’s official Twitter account.]

In May 1956, NSA cryptanalytic veterans pushed a proposal titled “Recommendations for a Full-Scale Attack on the Russian High-Level Systems,” believing that specially designed computers from IBM could provide the key for cracking the impenetrable Russian cryptography wall. Some cryptographers believed that ever-increasing processor speeds would eventually outpace even sophisticated codes.

By 1960, the NSA had spent $100 million on computers and analytical tools.

The problem? The NSA was collecting so much information that their increasingly small team of cryptoanalysts couldn’t dream of processing even a tiny portion of it.

But the quest for data access would only grow more ambitious.

In the wake of Sputnik’s launch in October of 1957, US signals intelligence would go where no man had gone before. The satellite GRAB, launched alongside Transit II-A in June of 1960, was supposedly meant to study cosmic radiation. (GRAB stood for Galactic Radiation and Background.)

[Image courtesy of NSA’s official Twitter account.]

But it was actually intended to collect radar signals from two Soviet air-defense systems. This was the next step of ELINT, electronic intelligence work. (The younger brother of SIGINT.)

The NSA would later find a huge supporter in President Lyndon Johnson, as the president was heavily invested in SIGINT, ELINT, and any other INTs he could access. This did little to quell the intelligence-gathering rivalry growing between the CIA and NSA.

Of course, that’s not to say that the NSA ceased to do any worthwhile work in codebreaking. Far from it, actually.

During the Vietnam War, NSA analysts pored over North Vietnamese signals, trying to uncover how enemy pilots managed to scramble and respond so quickly to many of the US’s airstrikes conducted during Operation Rolling Thunder.

Careful analysis revealed an aberrant character (in Morse code) in messages that appeared in North Vietnamese transmissions before 90 percent of the Rolling Thunder airstrikes. By identifying when the enemy used that aberrant character, the analysts
were able to warn US pilots whether they were heading toward a prepared enemy or an unsuspecting one during a given sortie.

Other NSA teams worked to protect US communications by playing the role of an enemy analyst. They would try to break US message encryptions and see how much they could learn from intercepted US signals. Identifying flaws in their own procedures — as well as members of the military who were cutting corners when it came to secured communications — helped to make US communications more secure.

[Image courtesy of NSA.gov.]

In 1979, Jack Gurin, the NSA’s Chief of Language Research, wrote an article in the NSA’s in-house publication Cryptolog, entitled “Let’s Not Forget Our Cryptologic Mission.” He believed much of the work done at the agency, and many of the people
hired, had strayed from the organization’s core mission.

The continued push for data acquisition over codebreaking analysis in the NSA led to other organizations picking up the slack. The FBI used (and continues to use) codebreakers and forensic accountants when dealing with encrypted logs from criminal organizations covering up money laundering, embezzlement, and other illegal activities.

And groups outside the government also made impressive gains in the field of encryption, among them IBM’s Thomas J. Watson Research Center, the Center for International Security and Arms Control, and even graduate student programs at universities like MIT and Stanford.

For instance, cryptographer Whitfield Diffie developed the concept of the asymmetric cipher. Joichi Ito explains it well in Whiplash:

Unlike any previously known code, asymmetric ciphers do not require the sender and receiver to have the same key. Instead, the sender (Alice) gives her public key to Bob, and Bob uses it to encrypt a message to Alice. She decrypts it using her private key. It no longer matters if Eve (who’s eavesdropping on their conversation) also has Alice’s public key, because the only thing she’ll be able to do with it is encrypt a message that only Alice can read.

This would lead to a team at MIT developing RSA, a technique that implemented Diffie’s asymmetric cipher concept. (It’s worth noting that RSA encryption is still used to this day.)

[Image courtesy of Campus Safety Magazine.com.]

The last big sea change in encryption came when the government and military realized they no longer had a monopoly on codebreaking technology. Increased reliance and awareness of the importance of computer programming, greater access to computers with impressive processing power, and a groundswell of support for privacy from prying government eyes, led to dual arms races: encryption and acquisition.

And this brings us to the modern day. The revelations wrought by Edward Snowden’s leak of NSA information revealed the incredible depth of government data mining and acquistion, leading some pundits to claim that the NSA is “the only part of government that actually listens.”

Whatever your feelings on Snowden’s actions or government surveillance, there is no doubt that the National Security Agency has grown and changed a great deal since the days of cracking the ENIGMA code or working with the crew at Bletchley Park.

Where will American codebreaking go next? Who knows? Perhaps quantum computing will bring codes so complicated they’ll be impenetrable.

All I know is… it’s part of puzzle history.


I hope you enjoyed this multi-part series on the history of 20th-century codebreaking in America. If you’d like to learn more, you can check out some of the valuable sources I consulted while working on these posts:

Code Warriors: NSA’s Codebreakers and the Secret Intelligence War Against the Soviet Union by Stephen Budiansky

Whiplash: How to Survive Our Faster Future by Joichi Ito

The Secret Lives of Codebreakers by Sinclair McKay


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Puzzle History: Codebreaking and the NSA, part 2

[Image courtesy of NSA’s official Twitter account.]

At the end of part 1 of our look at the history of the NSA and American codebreaking, we left off with the pivotal Black Friday event.

On November 1, 1948, all intel coming from monitored Soviet signals went quiet. All traffic on military, naval, and police radio links was replaced with dummy messages. It was such an unprecedented and alarming event that London and Washington briefly considered that it might’ve been the first indication of preparations for war.

According to Code Warriors author Stephen Budiansky:

The full extent of the disaster only became apparent the following spring when real traffic started reappearing on the radio nets, now employing greatly improved — and completely unbreakable — technical and security procedures. The keying errors or other mistakes that had allowed most of the Soviets’ machine-enciphered military traffic to be routinely read by US and British codebreakers for the last several years had been corrected, and the much more disciplined systems that now replaced them slammed the cryptanalytic door shut.

Even the one-time pads that had offered some hope to attentive American codebreakers were updated, eliminating the ability to sort messages by which organization they originated from.

Codemakers had suddenly outpaced codebreakers.

[The Kryptos sculpture outside CIA Headquarters. The NSA cracked
several of its codes before the CIA did. Image courtesy of Slate.com.]

The Office of Naval Intelligence wanted to take over from Signals Intelligence (SIGINT), demanding to see “everything” so they could do the job. They claimed SIGINT should limit their work to message translation, leaving interpretation to “the real experts.” This sort of territorial gamesmanship would continue to hamper government organizations for decades to come.

And that demand to see everything? That probably sounds familiar, in light of the revelations about government data collection and the PRISM program that were revealed in Edward Snowden’s leaks.

Black Friday was the start of all that, a shift from codecracking to the massive data collection and sifting operation that characterized the NSA for decades to come.

More amazingly, there was SO MUCH information collected during World War II that SIGINT was still poring over it all in 1949, decrypting what they could to reveal Soviet agents in the U.S. and England.

The fact that a high-ranking member of British Intelligence at the time, Kim Philby, was actually a Soviet double agent complicated things. After a decade under suspicion, Philby would flee to the Soviet Union in 1963, stunning many friends and colleagues who had believed in his innocence.

[The spy and defector, honored with a Soviet stamp.
Image courtesy of Britannica.com.]

Although the Russians had flummoxed SIGINT, other countries weren’t so lucky. The East German police continued to use ENIGMA codes as late as 1956. Many of the early successes in the Korean War were tied to important decryption and analysis work by SIGINT. Those successes slowed in July of 1951, when North Korea began mimicking Russia’s radio procedures, making it much harder to gain access to North Korean intel.

Finally, the chaotic scramble for control over signal-based data gathering and codebreaking between the government and the military resulted in the birth of the National Security Agency on November 4, 1952, by order of President Truman.

One of the first things the NSA did? Reclassify all sorts of material involving historical codebreaking, including books and papers dating back to the Civil War and even the American Revolution.

[The actual report that recommended the creation of the NSA.
Image courtesy of NSA’s official Twitter account.]

The creation of the NSA had finally, for a time at least, settled the issue of who was running the codebreaking and signals intelligence operation for the United States. And they were doing fine work refining the art of encryption, thanks to the work of minds like mathematician and cryptographer Claude Shannon.

One of Shannon’s insights was the inherent redundancy that is built into written language. Think of the rules of spelling, of syntax, of logical sentence progression. Those rules define the ways that letters are combined to form words (and those words form sentences, and those sentences form paragraphs, and so on).

The result? Well, if you know the end goal of the encoded string of characters is a functioning sentence in a given language, that helps narrow down the amount of possible information contained in that string. For instance, a pair of characters can’t be ANYTHING, because letter combinations like TD, ED, LY, OU, and ING are common, while combos like XR, QA, and BG are rare or impossible.

By programming codecracking computers to recognize some of these rules, analysts were developing the next generation of codebreakers.

Unfortunately, the Russian line was holding. The NSA’s failure to read much, if any, Soviet encrypted traffic since Black Friday was obviously becoming more than just a temporary setback.

Something fundamental had changed in the nature of the Russian cryptographic systems, and in the eyes of some scientific experts called in to assess the situation, the NSA had failed to keep up with the times.


I hope you’re enjoying this look at the early days of America’s 20th-century codebreaking efforts. Part 3 will continue next week, with the sea change from active codebreaking to data mining, plus Vietnam, the space race, and more!


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The Mystery of the Kryptos Sculpture

[Image courtesy of Kryptos.arcticus.com.]

If I told you that one of the most famous unsolved encrypted messages in the world isn’t lurking in the works of Da Vinci or in some vast government warehouse like the Ark of the Covenant, but rather as part of a sculpture only twenty-five years old, you might be surprised.

You’d probably be less surprised to discover that said sculpture is located in front of the headquarters of the CIA, though.

Kryptos, a flowing sculpture made of petrified wood and copper plating over a small pool of water, was revealed to the world in 1990. Masterminded by artist Jim Sanborn, it was apparently designed to both challenge and honor the Central Intelligence Agency. And for decades now, it has proven to be a top-flight brain teaser for codebreakers both professional and amateur.

From an article on Wired.com:

It all began in 1988 when the CIA Fine Arts Commission commissioned local artist James Sanborn to create a cryptographic sculpture for a courtyard on the CIA campus. Sanborn completed the two-part sculpture in 1990, which included stones laid out in International Morse code near the front entrance of the CIA campus, and a 12-foot-high, verdigrised copper, granite and petrified wood sculpture. The latter, which is the more famous part of Kryptos, was inscribed with four encrypted messages composed from some 1,800 letters carved out of the copper plate.

[Image courtesy of The Magazine.org.]

There are four distinct sections, utilizing different forms of encryption. And amazingly, the fourth section continues to elude codecrackers to this very day.

It took nearly a decade before anyone announced a solution to the first three encryptions. A computer scientist named Jim Gillogly announced in 1999 that he had cracked passages 1, 2, and 3 with computer assistance.

The CIA, not to be one-upped, then revealed that one of their own employees, an analyst named David Stein, had solved those same three passages the year before, using only pencil, paper, and lunchtime man-hours.

But a 2013 Freedom of Information Act request into records of the National Security Agency revealed that an NSA team actually cracked those same three passages back in 1993 as part of a friendly rivalry between the NSA and CIA, provoked by former NSA director and then-deputy CIA director William O. Studeman.

[Image courtesy of G.A. Matiasz.]

Passage 1 employs a Vigenère cipher, a letter-shifting cipher that has been used for centuries, also known as a periodic polyalphabetic substitution cipher, if you want to get fancy with it.

The message, penned by Sanborn himself, reads Between subtle shading and the absence of light lies the nuance of iqlusion. [Iqlusion is an intentional misspelling of “illusion.”]

Passage 2 also employs a Vigenère cipher, but utilizes a different keyword than Passage 1. The message, also composed by Sanborn, points toward something hidden nearby:

It was totally invisible. How’s that possible? They used the earth’s magnetic field. x The information was gathered and transmitted undergruund to an unknown location. x Does Langley know about this? They should: it’s buried out there somewhere. x Who knows the exact location? Only WW. This was his last message. x Thirty eight degrees fifty seven minutes six point five seconds north, seventy seven degrees eight minutes forty four seconds west. x Layer two. [Again, there’s an intentional misspelling here with “undergruund.”]

Passage 3 uses a transposition cipher, which relies on the positioning of given letters in order to properly spell out a message. The message is inspired by the words of Howard Carter, the archaeologist who opened King Tut’s tomb:

Slowly, desparatly slowly, the remains of passage debris that encumbered the lower part of the doorway was removed. With trembling hands I made a tiny breach in the upper left-hand corner. And then, widening the hole a little, I inserted the candle and peered in. The hot air escaping from the chamber caused the flame to flicker, but presently details of the room within emerged from the mist. x Can you see anything? q [Again, there’s an intentional misspelling with “desparatly.”]

[Image courtesy of Unmuseum.org.]

Although some codebreakers believe the misspellings of “iqlusion,” “undergruund,” and “desparatly” are simply Sanborn’s crafty attempts at misdirection, others believe they are clues hinting at how to crack Passage 4, which is only 97 characters long.

Sanborn has even offered hints to help frustrated solvers in their efforts to unravel the mystery of Passage 4. In 2006, he revealed that letters 64 through 69 in the passage, NYPVTT, decrypt to “Berlin.”

And in 2014, Sanborn revealed that letters 70 through 74, MZFPK, decrypt to “clock.” So the message has something to do with the Berlin Clock, although Sanborn has stated “there are several really interesting clocks in Berlin.”

[Image of the Berlin Clock courtesy of Secret City Travel.com.]

Amazingly, even if someone does crack Passage 4 someday, that’s not the end of the journey. All four passages are part of a riddle to unravel to truly solve the Kryptos puzzle, and apparently, doing so requires you to be on CIA property. That’s no small feat.

Jim Sanborn has truly created a beautiful, diabolical puzzle for the ages here. I wonder who will step up to finally solve this masterpiece.


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