The Enigma Machine
The Oscar movie “The Imitation Game” has reignited interest in the Enigma coding machines. And we’re learning that encryption is just as complicated today as it was during Alan Turing’s time.
If you’ve seen the movie, you know the Enigma coding machine plays a key role in the Oscar winning “The Imitation Game”, and gave us as much foresight into today’s encryption and digital privacy age – as it did the computing age.
The Imitation Game shows how British cryptanalyst Alan Turing and his team of fellow wonks worked day and night during WWII, in the UK’s Bletchley Park, using mathematics to look for patterns in the secret code sent using Enigmas. Turing ultimately broke the code.
Today, we still have secret codes …but it’s called encryption. Here’s a visual comparison between encryption during Turing’s time and today by George Burri, a security engineer in Silicon Valley who has degrees in both computer science and math.
Burri says the actual concept of cryptology hasn’t changed much since WWII. “Back then, the encryption ‘key’ was comprised of several mechanical factors of the Enigma including the configuration of the rotors, rings and a plug board. In modern times, computers use long, randomized sequences of characters as keys (like XYZDEFWODPAMDLXI). But the critical aspect remains the same: keep the key secret.”
Also today, it’s the average consumer (and companies) who want their messages and data encrypted …not just the German military. David Wu is studying for his PhD in computer security and cryptography at Stanford University, and says, “Today, we want to take advantage of cloud computing to keep our photos and emails private, but don’t necessarily want to reveal our data to the cloud, be it to Google, Amazon and so on.”
Wu says that in recent years, the question has become who can see that data in the cloud. He explains since the cloud doesn’t need direct access to data for computation to occur, encryption is becoming more common. Last Fall, Apple took a lead in announcing end to end encryption of all personal messages (email, contacts etc), with its iOS 8 software update, so no one – not even the government – can bypass your passcode and access your data.
The Future Of Encryption
Wu says that while encryption might provide protection against Internet eavesdroppers, it’s often inadequate if an adversary (a hacker) has compromised a user’s system. (Sony Entertainment found this out the hard way with its recent megahack.) He says a key advancement in the field of theoretical cryptography is software obfuscation, which in simple terms, is making data unintelligible from any user, but still allowing users to run the software. Data is encrypted, but it can’t be decrypted.
We have that kind of encryption now, but it’s expensive and time intensive. In the future, better algorithms, faster CPUs etc. will make it much faster and cheaper.
Says Wu, “We’re still so dependent today on passcodes. For the last 20 years, people have been encouraged to create random gobbledygook as a passcode (a lot like an Enigma code!). But an eight-character random string of numbers or letters isn’t that hard for computers to guess …but hard for a human to remember.”
Jon Ingold, “math advisor” for The Imitation Game
Mathematician, writer and entrepreneur Jon Ingold, who lives in the UK, was the official “math advisor” on the set of The Imitation Game, and advised Benedict Cumberbatch, who played Turing, for the scene where he and Joan Clarke sat outside, scribbling mathematics on paper. (Yes, every mathematician’s dream job.)
Says Ingold, “The math they’re playing with is the basis of the RSA crypto-cipher that’s in common usage on today’s Internet. The math for it was well within Turing’s reach – it’s ‘easy’ number theory, but actually doing it requires crunching some large numbers and locating very large primes – the sort of thing considered basically impossible …until computers came along. So our idea was that Turing might have been the kind of person to have that foresight.”
Ingold adds that to teach Cumberbatch about math, he tried to present ideas that raised questions, and then answer questions in broad terms. “Mostly, I suspect I talked and he listened to the kinds of words I used!”
Six of the 7 ‘Debs of Bletchley Park’
Inspired by all the renewed interested in the Enigmas, seven women – all who worked at Bletchley Park during Turing’s time – are releasing a book March 1st called “The Debs of Bletchley Park” that tells their stories. (The Enigma ‘secret’ first went public in 1972 in the books “The Ultra Secret” and “Bodyguard of Lies”.)
Back in Turing’s time, cryptanalysts were told they couldn’t say a word about Enigma. Now, people can’t stop talking about them. The Imitation Game won an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay.
Sources: Georges, Mary. Thenetwork.cisco.com
“In recent years, the question has become who can see that data in the cloud?’
– David Wu, Stanford University PhD in Cryptography