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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A puzzly British Christmas card!

One government agency in England celebrates Christmas a little bit differently than most.

The GCHQ — Government Communications Headquarters — provides security and intelligence services for the British government. Back when they were known as GC&CS — Government Code and Cypher School — they were responsible for funding the Bletchley Park successes cracking the German “Enigma” code during World War II.

And for Christmas this year, they’ve released a puzzly Christmas card that’s sure to challenge even the staunchest puzzlers.

Step 1 of the puzzle is a logic art puzzle where you have to deduce where to place black squares on an open grid in order to form a picture.

Each column and row has a series of numbers in it. These numbers represent runs of black squares in a row, so a 1 means there’s one black square followed by a blank square on either side and a 7 means 7 black squares together with a blank square on either side.

Once you’ve solved this puzzle, you can use it to unlock the next puzzle in the chain.

From an article on GCHQ.gov.uk:

Once all stages have been unlocked and completed successfully, players are invited to submit their answer via a given GCHQ email address by 31 January 2016. The winner will then be drawn from all the successful entries and notified soon after.

Players are invited to make a donation to the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, if they have enjoyed the puzzle.

This is one majorly challenging Christmas card. After you’ve conquered the logic art puzzle, you’ll confront brain teasers, palindromes, pattern-matching, deduction, number progressions, codebreaking, cryptic crossword-style cluing, and more.

I would highly recommend teaming up with another puzzle-minded friend (or more) and trying your luck. Let us know how far you get! (And you can hit up this article from the Telegraph for aid as well.)


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Mira Modi + dice = safer passwords for all!

Every time you sign up for a new website, email address, or social media account, you’re reminded of one of the most curious aspects of modern life for an Internet user: the increasing complexity of passwords.

Whether you’re being graded on the relative strength (or weakness) of your password based on its length or being required to include uppercase and lowercase letters, numbers, punctuation marks, or other symbols along the way, passwords are getting more and more complicated in the name of Internet safety.

This modern form of cryptography often leads to one of three results:

  • you use the same password over and over for everything (not safe)
  • you have to write down different passwords to every site in order to keep them all straight (also not safe)
  • you opt for a password-management service to handle them for you (a bit unwieldy)

Well, as it turns out, an 11-year-old girl named Mira Modi might have the answers to all your password needs.

Mira started a company called DiceWARE to create passwords that are both secure and easy to remember!

From her website:

The DiceWARE method creates strong passwords that are easy to remember but extremely difficult for hackers to crack. Passwords contain random words from the dictionary, such as: alger klm curry blond puck horse.

For the very affordable price of $2, Mira will create a six-word password just for you, send it to you by mail, and then encourage you to customize it however you see fit — capitalized letters, number replacement, etc. — so even she won’t know your password when you’re done.

How does it work?

You roll a die 5 times and write down each number. Then you look up the resulting five-digit number in the DiceWARE dictionary, which contains a numbered list of short words.

So, essentially, the same randomness that can make Yahtzee a delight or a challenge will decide each of your six words. It’s ingeniously simple and designed to dissuade the usual hacking tricks.

Kudos to Mira for creating an affordable and immensely clever way to make our websurfing safer! This is puzzly thinking at its finest!


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You’ll never guess this Viking secret message…

I write about codebreaking a lot in this blog. For me, it’s one of the most fascinating real-world applications of puzzle-solving skills. The fact that so many of these stories involve momentous and fascinating times in history — like the Civil War, World War II, and even the identity of the Man in the Iron Mask — is just icing on the cake.

But it’s nice to be reminded that playing around with codes for fun is an equally long-lasting tradition.

K. Jonas Nordby (probably my favorite name that has ever appeared on the blog, by the way), is a runologist — a scholar of runes — at the University of Oslo, and he recently cracked a runic code employed by the Vikings, the jotunvillur code, based on samples scratched into a stick from the 13th century.

From an article on Medievalists.net (though I first spotted the story on IO9):

For the jötunvillur code, one would replace the original runic character with the last sound of the rune name. For example, the rune for ‘f’, pronounced fe, would be turned into an ‘e’, while the rune for ‘k’, pronounced kaun, became ‘n’.

The messages themselves range from simple expressions — “Kiss me” — to taunts by confident codesmiths daring readers to try to crack a given runic code.

Heck, some of the encoded messages even included a Viking cryptographer boasting about his skills!

It’s fun to imagine Vikings toying with various codes and runes during their downtime. Even marauders take time out for some quality puzzling, it seems. =)

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An iron mask and an uncrackable code…

I’ll probably never get tired of writing blog posts about cryptography. It’s a puzzly skill with plenty of real-world applications. Heck, England hosts a yearly codebreaking challenge in order to identify people with topnotch cryptographic abilities in the hopes of recruiting them for government work!

We’ve explored how modern codebreaking has cracked secret messages from the Civil War as well as how cryptographic skill caught a murderer and helped decipher the lost language Linear B. We’ve even talked about the time that enterprising codebreakers saved Christmas!

And, as it turns out, a nineteenth-century codebreaker may have solved the mystery of the Man in the Iron Mask.

For centuries, French communiques were unreadable because the French employed Le Grand Chiffre, or the Great Cipher, a substitution code devised by Antoine and Bonaventure Rossignol that employed numbers standing in for letters. (There were several variations of the Great Cipher, ranging between 580 and 720 code numbers.)

But the Great Cipher was cracked by Etienne Bazeries, a French military cryptoanalyst who deduced that each number stood not for a single letter, but for pairings of letters. More specifically, syllables. Over the course of three years (from 1891 to 1893), by working his way through the patterns and identifying common letter patterns based on frequency of use, he deciphered first a few words, and eventually, the entire cipher. (Supposedly the key was the numeric combination “124-22-125-46-345,” which stood for “the enemies.”)

One of the encoded messages from King Louis XIV concerned a disgraced general named Vivien de Bulonde, who endangered an entire French campaign against the Austrians by fleeing an Italian town instead of attacking it.

His Majesty knows better than any other person the consequences of this act, and he is also aware of how deeply our failure to take the place will prejudice our cause, a failure which must be repaired during the winter. His Majesty desires that you immediately arrest General Bulonde and cause him to be conducted to the fortress of Pignerole, where he will be locked in a cell under guard at night, and permitted to walk the battlement during the day with a 330 309.

Bazeries believes that “330” and “309” stood for the syllables “mas” and “que,” meaning that General Bulonde was masked for his daily walks, but since those Great Cipher codes were apparently only used once, it’s impossible to confirm Bazeries’ suspicions.

It took Bazeries three years to crack an “uncrackable” code, and quite possibly solve a centuries-old mystery. Another testament to where puzzly skills can take you.

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