Malibu Crypto
January 9, 2017 10:55 AM   Subscribe

The Barbie Typewriter has a hidden built-in cryptographic capability. Specifically, four alphabet substitution cipher modes that were explained in the manual for the original Mehano electronic typewriter that served as the basis for the Barbie Typewriter. However: As it was probably thought that secret writing would not appeal to girls, the coding/decoding facilities were omitted from the [Barbie Typewriter] manual. Nevertheless, these facilities can still be accessed if you know how to activate them. Via Bruce Schneier.
posted by Cash4Lead (52 comments total) 58 users marked this as a favorite
 
"Secret writing would not . . ." Do they know any girls? When I was a kid, I invented more codes than I had friends to pass coded notes to. Being a girl meant feeling that I was full of desperately secret things.
posted by Countess Elena at 10:59 AM on January 9 [114 favorites]


Did no one at Mattel know about the secret 'languages' of girls? In my friendship circle, it was called Ab. We would stick 'ab' after every consonant. Habellabo evaberabbabodadby!!
posted by LindsayIrene at 11:03 AM on January 9 [1 favorite]


Congratulations on your purchase of a new Barbie™ doll. We sincerely hope you have many hours of fun and play with your new friend. Before you begin playing, you will need to choose two very large prime numbers and a generator for the multiplicative group of units modulo their product. You must never tell anybody your primes.
posted by Wolfdog at 11:06 AM on January 9 [141 favorites]


In other news, I spent 15 minutes on Saturday night trying to convince a bunch of people that Game Developer Barbie was amazing, and they wouldn't believe me. But she is amazing! I want one for my office.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 11:09 AM on January 9 [6 favorites]


Alternatively, they omitted documenting as a step towards deprecating an insecure crypto-system!
posted by phack at 11:09 AM on January 9 [9 favorites]


However: As it was probably thought that secret writing would not appeal to girls might pose a future threat to the patriarchy, the coding/decoding facilities were omitted from the [Barbie Typewriter] manual. Nevertheless, these facilities can still be accessed if you know how to activate them.

Or at least that's how I would have liked it to turn out. New, Equality Barbie™
posted by BigHeartedGuy at 11:14 AM on January 9 [28 favorites]


I wonder how many users inadvertently enabled the crypto mode (the key combinations seem pretty simple) and then thought their typewriter was broken. I agree that not publicizing this is stupid on several levels, and probably hurt sales to boot.
posted by TedW at 11:24 AM on January 9


My Lite Brite had wifi.
posted by mintcake! at 11:26 AM on January 9 [5 favorites]


However: As it was probably thought that secret writing would not appeal to girls might pose a future threat to the patriarchy, the coding/decoding facilities were omitted from the [Barbie Typewriter] manual. Nevertheless, these facilities can still be accessed if you know how to activate them.

Ofken is a simple harlot of no consequence; such a foolish woman poses no threat.
posted by leotrotsky at 11:27 AM on January 9 [26 favorites]


I read this, then think of the substitution ciphers my daughter was making for me to decode last night.
posted by MrGuilt at 11:29 AM on January 9 [6 favorites]


The initial Mehano E-115 model Barbie typewriter was sold in 1998. 1998, not 1978. Who still even HAD a typewriter by then?
posted by Delia at 11:29 AM on January 9 [4 favorites]


In other news, I spent 15 minutes on Saturday night trying to convince a bunch of people that Game Developer Barbie was amazing, and they wouldn't believe me. But she is amazing! I want one for my office.

She's missing the Provigil subscription and the horrific working conditions.
posted by leotrotsky at 11:29 AM on January 9 [4 favorites]


Did no one at Mattel know about the secret 'languages' of girls? In my friendship circle, it was called Ab. We would stick 'ab' after every consonant. Habellabo evaberabbabodadby!!

At'sthey ettypray illysay.

(Actually it's Ubbi dubbi)
posted by leotrotsky at 11:31 AM on January 9


Ohmigod, in grade school my friends and I would have freaked out on this. *sigh*
posted by wenestvedt at 11:31 AM on January 9


Did no one at Mattel know about the secret 'languages' of girls?

When I was in England in 1992, none of the uni students I asked had heard of Pig Latin. *shrug*
posted by wenestvedt at 11:32 AM on January 9 [2 favorites]


There's a Barbie typewriter? Now, like today?

I look forward to the Barbie-themed VHS cassette rewinder no doubt coming out any day now.

Barbie says, "Be kind, rewind!"
posted by Naberius at 11:34 AM on January 9 [4 favorites]


Mods, I just realized I misspelled 'Malibu'. Please fix, thanks.
posted by Cash4Lead at 2:22 PM on January 9 [+] [!]


Mabalabibabu.
posted by dywypi at 11:35 AM on January 9 [15 favorites]


There's a Barbie typewriter? Now, like today?

Perhaps it's just a mode on the Hanx Writer?
posted by MrGuilt at 11:38 AM on January 9 [1 favorite]


My older sister made a fair stab at inventing her own language, purely for the purposes of taunting me.
posted by Halloween Jack at 11:40 AM on January 9 [4 favorites]


[Uball subet.]
posted by cortex at 11:43 AM on January 9 [5 favorites]


That feeling when your first thought "Do they know any actual girls???" is also the first comment in the thread. Capitalism would work a lot better if people were not so determined to shoot themselves in the foot at every opportunity.
posted by bleep at 11:49 AM on January 9 [17 favorites]


It doesn't look like it's still for sale, although the Crypto Museum article suggests otherwise: This [the Model E-118] is the latest model that is still being sold today (2015). A quick search shows old models on eBay, but that's it.
posted by Cash4Lead at 11:50 AM on January 9



In other news, I spent 15 minutes on Saturday night trying to convince a bunch of people that Game Developer Barbie was amazing, and they wouldn't believe me. But she is amazing! I want one for my office.

I got my daughter that for Christmas!
posted by Tabitha Someday at 11:50 AM on January 9


Amateurish ciphers have brought down a queen before. It's best if girls learn to play and master them early, so they don't repeat mistakes.
posted by Countess Elena at 11:55 AM on January 9 [16 favorites]


Yeah, I mean, my best friend and I made up a whole language to talk to each other in when we were in middle school. We passed notes in code all the freakin time. Did the Powers That Be at Mattel never once observe a pre-teen girl? Honestly, what girl WOULDN'T be interested in secret ciphers and coding/decoding them?
posted by chainsofreedom at 12:02 PM on January 9 [1 favorite]


I had something similar happen recently.

I took my daughter a "Get Ready for Kindergarten" fair earlier this year. The brochure said that there would be a Snap Circuits set at the Girl Scout table. I'd been wanting to try one of those out because she'd been interested in simple electronics, but when we got there the set was absent and there were plastic frogs to play with instead. I asked about the kit and the scout leader admitted that they left it under the table because they thought it would be too much for younger girls.

She pulled it out and we flipped to one of the simpler pages of instructions. I briefly explained what a circuit was ("Just make a circle.") and my daughter snapped everything into place, flipped the switch and sent a disc flying into the air.

Guess what she is getting for her birthday! It's tempting to get the encrypting typewriter and hold onto it for when she's ready. We are working on rewiring Christmas lights with batteries to light her Barbie Dreamhouse.
posted by Alison at 12:02 PM on January 9 [50 favorites]


Guess what she is getting for her birthday!

Snap Circuits rock--my daughter has been playing with them for a long time, and is graduating to newer iterations, and raspberry pis.
posted by MrGuilt at 12:12 PM on January 9 [4 favorites]


This is a pretty good example about the different social expectations around computing are for girls and boys. Girls aren't given as much opportunity or encouragement to learn technical subjects*, and then later, their lack of engagement is blamed on some fundamental difference.

Although, the recent comment in the bike shops thread about how women just aren't mechanically inclined made me suddenly realize just how culturally constructed our ideas of what is "technical" and not are. Knitters, my god.

And put me in the category of girls who invented codes. Not because I wanted to write secret things, but because codes are interesting.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 12:23 PM on January 9 [24 favorites]


The coded writing obsession (originated and fueled largely by me but eventually absorbing most of the girls in class) got so out of hand in my second grade class that my teacher banned coded writing.

And so I discovered steganography.
posted by potrzebie at 12:37 PM on January 9 [45 favorites]


Add me to the list of women who, in middle school, created a written code for passing notes to my best friend. We still have it memorized and occasionally use it in Christmas cards and such.

This typewriter is so cool, and would have been huge if the cipher modes had been advertised! I want one!
posted by palegirl at 1:01 PM on January 9 [3 favorites]


Back when I was one of the DC Cypherpunks, I had the idea for a PDA-type device for girls, "My Secret Diary," which would have PGP-based encryption of the "takes longer than the heat death of the universe to break" type, authenticated communications (so you know that the person who claims to be your friend is actually who they say and not some mean grrl trying to spoof you), a web-based interface, that sort of thing, to the point of approaching a VC I knew to see if he or someone he know might be interested in some development effort. He read the plan, complimented me on the idea, then sat and thought for a good 5 minutes before rejecting it entirely. First, as a father of a girl himself, he would not buy something that could be used for communications that he couldn't monitor, and second, in his experience any device with "unbreakable" crypto would be immediately pounced on by various governments security agencies and either compromised or banned outright -- he said he and nobody who'd ever invested in the crypto industry before would get involved in such a project would touch another with a 10 foot pole. And this was pre-9/11, so I can only imagine how much more scrutiny and interference such a product would have nowadays.
posted by Blackanvil at 1:07 PM on January 9 [8 favorites]


So, Blackanvil, it seems that the idea failed because of general paranoid-government reasons rather than clearly sexist reasons?

Progress?.
posted by oddman at 1:11 PM on January 9 [2 favorites]


There was a toy just like that, I had one, I was sooo excited when I got it for Christmas. In like 1993 or something. The cool thing was you could send messages to your friends but none of my friends got one :(
posted by bleep at 1:37 PM on January 9


I used some very simple codes in elementary school and also experimented with using lemon juice as invisible ink that you then ironed to see the message. It was kind of a bust. I scorned the girl from uncle TV show because it was lame. I joined the man from uncle fan club or somesuch that gave me some kind of man from uncle ID card. I'm pretty sure I had to cross out the part that said I was a boy. TL;DR: fuck the patriarchy, fuck capitalism, and thank you OP.
posted by Bella Donna at 2:03 PM on January 9 [3 favorites]


Amateurish ciphers have brought down a queen before

Hands up if you're a massive enough nerd to know this was about the Babington Plot before you read it.

...what's that? I'm the only one sad enough? Okay.

All this is reminding me that while my relationship with my mother was...complicated...one of the things I'll always be glad she taught me is simple frequency analysis to solve letter substitution codes. (I think I was struggling with a cipher puzzle in the newspaper, or something similar.)
posted by Mr. Bad Example at 2:25 PM on January 9 [3 favorites]


Metafilter: fuck the patriarchy, fuck capitalism, and thank you OP.
posted by Lycaste at 2:47 PM on January 9 [16 favorites]


in his experience any device with "unbreakable" crypto would be immediately pounced on by various governments security agencies and either compromised or banned outright
So exactly like a computer and exactly unlike computers. Gotcha.

How long before 9/11 was this Blackanvil? 1992? I think your idea is great and all of those reasons for rejection are lame!
posted by books for weapons at 3:39 PM on January 9 [2 favorites]


I wonder how many users inadvertently enabled the crypto mode (the key combinations seem pretty simple) and then thought their typewriter was broken.
Some Amazon buyers seem to have received their typewriters in code mode.
posted by books for weapons at 3:44 PM on January 9 [4 favorites]


secret writing would not appeal to girls might pose a future threat to the patriarchy
It might sell to the elf on a shelf market if you include a golden key, which could turn out to be a sweet deal.

Is there such a thing as equal-opportunity patriarchy?
posted by swr at 4:55 PM on January 9


Lemon juice/heat as invisible ink absolutely works, at least when I was in grade 3. Ovens/ cigarette lighters work a bit better/ more reliably than a hot iron.

Why, yes, my parents let me use the oven and play with fire when I was 8. I even had a pocket knife in grade 4 (school nixed that right quick - but let me keep my box cutter/x-acto knife... 1986-ish Canada?).

After learning about letter frequency analysis, the obvious next step was writing a fake message in an easy-to-break code, and using invisible ink for the real message. Had no idea that it qualified as steganography until I encountered the word steganography ... sometime in late highschool?

/synthetic DNA microdot encoding the real message has been spotted onto the algorithmically determined location in this post. Forward primer sequence is the comment number and reverse primer sequence is modulo theta of the spot location
posted by porpoise at 5:07 PM on January 9 [4 favorites]


This actually dates back from the time that Barbie was living in Vienna under the working name "Brigitte" and running networks out of Budapest, Prague, and Bratislava.


Of course, she had to get out pretty quick, once it was discovered that Ken was actually a Moscow Centre mole in Langley.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 6:32 PM on January 9 [14 favorites]


This actually dates back from the time that Barbie was living in Vienna under the working name "Brigitte" and running networks out of Budapest, Prague, and Bratislava.


I thought her working name was "Lilli".

And I didn't flesh out my earlier comment, but there are all sorts of "secret journals" marketed to pre-teen girls with a variety of primitive mechanical or electronic locks to give the appearance of privacy (but can easily be defeated by parents if need be). A Barbie enigma machine would fit perfectly into this marketing niche.
posted by TedW at 7:46 PM on January 9 [3 favorites]


+1 to girls of course loving encryption: my daughter started writing in substitution cyphers with her own invented alphabets as soon as she could spell and print.
posted by kandinski at 10:35 PM on January 9 [3 favorites]


I don't see anywhere where Mattel or anyone says that they didn't think encryption would appeal to young girls, I see where someone just made that up based on nothing and put it in an article on the internet.

If I had to guess I would would bet they just thought it was going to be a support hassle and people would return them.
posted by bongo_x at 10:47 PM on January 9 [1 favorite]


Imagine a world where these typewriters were also branded as Batman typewriters. Little girls and boys could play together, making up their Barbie-and-Batman stories and exchanging secret messages, as if they were of the same species growing up together in similar circumstances.
posted by bryon at 11:48 PM on January 9 [9 favorites]


The first rule of Crypto Club is: you do not document Crypto Club.
posted by fairmettle at 12:11 AM on January 10 [5 favorites]


The second rule of Crypto Club is: ZIOEW CDXEJ UQILJ KLXWR DWAIK BHAIE KSNCF VFLIJ AQXTM QYZPZ WITVN OPGII QGBPM MCBRJ FITD.
posted by Mr. Bad Example at 8:39 AM on January 10 [3 favorites]


Speaking of Barbie products with hidden features, I wonder what the Barbie Liberation Organization is up to these days.
posted by exogenous at 10:31 AM on January 10 [1 favorite]


OWOBTLYFZHYWRGPCOWEJEDZZKHAWTBFDGAPYGGIHLEXS
GIJOEITHINKKENISBEGINNINGTOSUSPECTLOVEBARBIE
posted by algomeysa at 1:57 AM on January 11


VUBME	HTNOT	IGNAR	PSINE
HWNOI	TPYRC	NESIH	TKAER
BOTDE	LIAFS	LOOTD	ETACI
TSIHP	OSHTI	WSTNE	DUTSY
HPARG	OTPYR	CFORE	BMUNG
NISIR	PRUSA		
posted by Wolfdog at 7:10 AM on January 11


For future ethical potential message passers; the acid (in lemon juice; vinegar ought to be just as good or better, depending on the vinegar) treated cellulose (paper) has a lower charring-point than untreated acid-free paper.

The idea is to get the paper up to just under the charring temperature (which would turn the paper brown) while letting acid-treated parts of the paper (the writing) char before the untreated portions did.

Hence hot-irons (they mean different things back in the 1800's and now, like how slow-cooker recipes pre FDA rules on minimum safe cooking temperatures tends to turn out like crap with modern crockpots) aren't as effective as waving a lighter's flame under a piece of paper.

There are all kinds of different methods to "paint" something that isn't visible to the naked eye, but can be detected with a secondary marker that has a much stronger affinity to the primary but not the typical surface that the primary will be painted upon. Think Western or Northern Blot type detection.

posted by porpoise at 8:41 PM on January 11


We used to develop lemon juice secret writing with hot incandescent bulbs. I remember struggling to get lower wattage bulbs to produce results, then resorting to flame often followed by the unwanted destruction of the message.
posted by exogenous at 7:34 AM on January 13


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