If the NSA is able to break through banks' computer security, does that mean it solved the prime factorization problem? The New York Times reported recently that “the agency has circumvented or cracked much of the encryption, or digital scrambling, that guards global commerce and banking systems.” Since banks' encryption codes rely on the fact that nobody knows how to find the prime factors of really large numbers, it could mean that the NSA has found a way to do that. Or it could mean that the NSA has simply gotten lots of banks to give up their information, or found other ways around their encryption. But if they've cracked this long-standing math problem, might the secret leak? What would be the effects?
Wired tells the story of an old encoded manuscript, the effort to crack it, and the secret occult society that it revealed.
Early 1940: British police listening for radio transmissions from German spies within the UK pick up weird signals, and pass them to Bletchley Park, the United Kingdom's main decryption establishment in WWII. The source of these German messages is an unknown machine, which the Brits dub Tunny (10 minute video with Tony Sale describing the Tunny). August 30, 1941: German operators send two very similar messages with the same key, providing insight into the encryption scheme. By January 1942, British cryptographers deduced the workings of the German code machines, sight unseen. The British were able to create their own Tunny emulators to decrypt messages sent by German High Command. After the war, these and other British code-breaking and emulating machines were demolished and/or recycled for parts and their blueprints destroyed, leaving a hole in the history of the British WWII code breaking. Efforts to rebuild the British Tunny emulator started in the 1990s, and quite recently a Tunny emulator replica was completed. [more inside]
Frank W. Lewis, longtime cryptic crossword setter for The Nation, passed away on Nov. 18 at the age of 98. Although best known for his puzzles, of which he set nearly 3000 over sixty years, Lewis also had a distinguished career with the War Department. His work on the team deciphering Japanese shipping codes during World War II led to awards for Exceptional Civilian Service, Outstanding Civilian Service, and Bletchley Park Service. [more inside]
The Coventry Blitz was seventy years ago today. The German Luftwaffe, in an operation they codenamed "Moonlight Sonata", bombed the city for over eleven hours, killing 600, injuring a thousand, and damaging or destroying over 43,000 homes -- just over half of the existing housing stock. The raid was so devastating that Joseph Goebbels later used the term Coventriert ("Coventrated") to describe a particularly satisfactory level of destruction. [more inside]
The Reader of Gentlemen's Mail In the spring of 1919, when the father of American cryptography, Herbert O. Yardley, drew up a plan for a permanent State Department codebreaking organization — a "black chamber — he estimated that a modest $100,000 a year would buy a chief (Yardley) and fifty clerks and cryptanalysts. Yardley rented a three-story building in New York City: on East 38th Street just off Fifth Avenue, he put two dozen people to work under civilian cover—as the Code Compiling Company. His summary dismissal happened in 1929 at the hand of incoming Secretary of State Henry Stimson, who closed down the Cipher Bureau with the casual observation that "gentlemen do not read each other's mail". The son of a railroad telegrapher, a man with a lively Jazz Age interest in money, good-looking women, and drinks at five, Yardley not only taught his country how to read other people's mail but wrote two of the enduring American books—the memoir The American Black Chamber (1931), and The Education of a Poker Player (1957).