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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It’s Follow-Up Friday: Tetris edition!

Welcome to Follow-Up Friday!

For those new to PuzzleNation Blog, Follow-Up Friday is a chance for us to revisit the subjects of previous posts and update the PuzzleNation audience on how these projects are doing and what these people have been up to in the meantime.

And today, we’re celebrating the 30th anniversary of Tetris! (Following up our post last year about the 29th anniversary of Tetris, of course.)

[Feel free to leave this a capella version of Tetris’s Theme A music by musician Smooth McGroove running in the background to properly set the mood.]

If crosswords are the top pen-and-paper puzzle and the Rubik’s cube is the top puzzle toy, then Tetris has to be the top puzzle game of all-time. It is instantly recognizable and completely unforgettable. (I still get a little anxious whenever I think about the music speeding up when I got too close to the top of the screen.)

It’s available for every video game console, computer, and media device, and has been for decades. Alexey Pajitnov’s incredibly addictive puzzle game baby has conquered the world, and today, we are proudly to join in the global celebration with a few of our favorite Tetris themed pictures.

We previously featured a Tetris Halloween costume in our puzzly costumes post, but these kids upped the ante with four Tetramino pieces as a team costume!

Someone even managed to render the blocks in origami form! How cool is that?

And then there’s this enterprising chef, who whipped up a Tetris-themed bento box full of blocky veggies to enjoy!

We’ve collected more Tetris images on a special board on our Pinterest page, so feel free to check them out in honor of today!

And to Alexey Pajitnov, thank you for years of puzzle pleasure. Your game has crossed borders and won the hearts of millions. You changed the puzzle landscape forever, and for the better.

In closing, here’s another famous Tetris tune performed a capella style for your enjoyment:

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Bigger really is better, sometimes…

[A massive Sudoku grid, created to promote a Sudoku gameshow in England in 2005.]

There’s just something about puzzles on a grand scale. From the Great Urban Race’s citywide scavenger hunts to the Internet-spanning curiosity that is Cicada 3301, puzzly ambition makes for some truly mindblowing experiences.

But those are puzzles of staggering complexity and scope, not actual physical size. When it comes to sheer dimensions, you have to go building-size.

There is, of course, the solvable crossword from Lviv, Ukraine, where the grid takes up the entire side of an apartment building, with clues hidden all over the city. It’s a brilliant tourism move and a terrific challenge (especially if you don’t read Cyrillic).

There was also the classic MIT hack from 2012 where ambitious miscreants transformed one side of the Green Building into a multicolored, playable Tetris game. (I recently learned that students from Brown University in Rhode Island accomplished a single-color version of the same feat back in 2000. You can find video of both hacks here.)

But Javier Lloret has upped the ante with Puzzle Facade, an art installation which transforms the Ars Electronica building in Linz, Austria into a solvable Rubik’s Cube.

Using a small handheld cube as an interface, a solver can manipulate the cube and watch the same changes carried out across two entire sides of the building in full color.

As you might expect, having only two sides of the cube available makes for a greater solving challenge, but who cares when you’re lighting up a building with every twist and turn!

It’s a fantastic meeting of puzzly fun and electronic wizardry, and the latest in a grand tradition of massive-scale creativity. I cannot wait to see what intrepid puzzlers come up with next.

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Where brilliance meets joyous frivolity…

Two weeks ago, we celebrated the 29th birthday of Tetris in a blog post, and I referenced the famous MIT prank where a giant game of Tetris was played on the side of a building.

This prank is one of the most recent in a long line of “hacks”, and MIT students have performed some impressive feats of creative whimsy along the way.

From a fire hose drinking fountain in 1991 to the installation of a shower stall in a common area in 1996, from turning the dome into R2-D2 (as pictured in our opening picture) to the “discovery” of an elevator in the remains of the demolished Building 20 (purportedly leading to a secret subbasement), these are top-tier pranks executed by some of the cleverest students in the world.

The Great Dome is often the palette of choice for MIT hacks, having featured a Triforce from the Legend of Zelda video games, the TARDIS from Doctor Who (which appeared all around campus), a fire truck, the Batman symbol, and numerous other Hack endeavors.

Here, the Apollo lunar lander looks down on a statue of Athena also added by industrious students. (Apollo watching over Athena, how apropos.)

One year, board games invaded campus. Giant versions of Cranium, Mousetrap, and Settlers of Catan appeared around campus, and all of the helpful maps around campus were altered to feature Risk gameplay.

Another time, an enormous game of Scrabble appeared on the wall, complete with MIT-inspired words fluttering in the breeze.

To honor the posting of XKCD’s 1000th comic — a comic that has also made appearances on this blog — XKCD comics appeared all over campus, often spelling out “1000”.

A Newton’s Cradle with imagery inspired by the Portal video game series appeared in 2012

But the best part of MIT hacks? Wondering just how the heck they managed to pull it off without anyone seeing. Like the urban legends behind stories of cars disassembled and reassembled in a professor’s office, the technological wizardry and sneaky cunning required for these marvelous pranks makes MIT Hack enthusiasts fellow puzzlers in spirit AND practice.