Hacking History: The Enigma Machine

Hacking History: The Enigma Machine

While this series is to be (mainly) about the figures who paved the way for hackers’ futures; the enigma machine requires a post of its own due to its sordid past. Aside from the Enigma Machine being a devise used for Nazi communication during World War II, there’s also a lot of controversy around our records of the intelligent, pre-computer hackers who broke the code. Before delving into all of this, let’s first break down what the enigma machine is…

The Enigma Machine is one of the first, more sophisticated, encryption machines. A sender first types a message onto a keyboard. The message is passed through a plug board and internal rotors. Each letter is scrambled, showing the sender a different letter. The sender then takes down these letters and sends them via Morse code to the receiver. If the receiver had an Enigma machine set up the same as the sender’s, it would decode the message for them. That’s a simplified version of what happens, The Guardian has a great article which shows the inner-workings in detailed steps with visuals.

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The Lesser Known Hacking History

While British cryptographers at Bletchley Park are often accredited with cracking the Enigma Codes, they may not have accomplished this feat without the years of work and research by Polish mathematicians. So, while I will discuss Alan Turing in my next post, I wanted to lay the groundwork for this historical decoding by giving credit to the Polish mathematicians who dedicated years of their life to cracking the Enigma codes before World War II even began.

Versions of the Enigma Machine were commercially available until 1932 when the German Army claimed exclusive rights so that all Enigma Machine sales required approval by the German Army. It was around this time that 3 Polish mathematicians, Marian Rejewski, Henryk Zygalski and Jerzy Rózyki, began to research the commercial Enigma Machine. They gathered intelligence about the military grade Enigma Machine, and using just a description, attempted to convert their commercial Enigma into military grade. They built a machine, the “Cyclometer” to help them make a catalog of possible keys. It took them a year to make, but once it was completed, it took only 15 minutes or less to find the key for decryption. One year later, the Germans changed the reflector, forcing the Poles to begin a new catalogue and when, a year later, the Germans changed their enciphering methods entirely, the trio had to get more creative.

Out of this draw-back, the Zygalski Sheets and the Bomba Kryptologiczna (or Bomba) were born. The Zygalski Sheets were a catalog of “female” indicators (as they were later named by the British). A female indicator is a an indicator in which one repeated character is also repeated in the enciphered text. The Bomba, pioneered by Rejewski, was a machine using the same principles as the Zygalski Sheets of finding female indicators to decipher Enigma coding. Rejewski claimed that, if enough female indicators were found, the Bomba could recover Enigma settings in two hours or less.

Unfortunately, the Bombas were all destroyed just before Germany invaded Poland in 1939, but the information gathered by the Poles and passed on to the Brits laid a foundation for cracking the code which made a huge impact on ending the war. In a meeting of codebreakers at the Polish Cipher Bureau, Rejewski, Zygalski and Rózyki gave one replica machine to the French and one to the British before destroying all of their documents and equipment.

To learn about the magician, inventor, skeptic, whistle-blower and original hacker- Nevil Maskelyne.

Nevile Maskelyne

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