Wednesday, 17 February 2016

Breaking Historical Ciphers: An Emerging Team

Breaking historical ciphers in an interesting field; it combines two rather different disciplines, cryptanalysis and history. Where history has touched on cryptology in the past has been where codebreaking has had some historical importance, such as the Allies breaking of the German and Japanese codes and ciphers during World War II. Cryptological history is another historical discipline that unfortunately lives largely in the shadows of historical research. Most historians probably know little about it and for some it probably does not exist.

Programs for breaking historical ciphertexts is therefore a unique chance for those of us who are interested in the cryptanalysis of classical and historical codes and ciphers and the history of cryptology. The field is very promising for many reasons. Firstly, for the cryptanalysts, both amateur and more seasoned actors, there is a chance to attack real systems used in the real world. The effort will give the cryptanalyst new and detailed insight into classical cipher systems and methods, which might reveal new information about their strengths and weaknesses. Furthermore, attacking hard cryptanalytical problems will also bring the reward of developing new and refined methods of solution. The final reward it to discover a previously unknown or undisclosed plaintext that might be of historical significance. Secondly, if the recovered plaintext is of historical or public interest then there will  be the added reward of media interests and especially academic interests among historians and other working in related fields. This media interest might open the eyes of people who firstly will discover the work done by the small community of historical cryptanalysts, but secondly and more importantly they may wish to take part in the work on breaking historical ciphers.

To prevent historical cryptanalysis to end up in the box marked “Dying or Extinct Species” there is an urgent need for help outside the cryptological field. We need historians and others, such as the many ‘archive rats,’ to tell us about interesting code- and ciphertexts that we can attack. To further this symbiosis there is a need for all of us to make an effort to inform at all levels about this interesting work. Therefore I ask you to please go out and become a missionary for historical codebreaking. Stand on the roof tops and shout: “We need historical ciphertexts. Now!”

Last year there was an attempt that originated largely in the academic fields of philology and history to get funding from the European Union for a program for historical cryptanalysis. An application for funding from COST, European Cooperation in Science and Technology, was made for a project called HICRYPT,   “Historical Cryptology – Unlocking Europe’s Encrypted Heritage.” Unfortunately the project did not get funding last year, but perhaps there will be other opportunities. The world’s economic situation is of course not favourable at the moment for projects that have rather weak foundations both in the academic world and elsewhere. It is therefore very important that when you get significant results from your historical codebreaking you inform the public and other interested players.

HICRYPT had as aim to decipher rather old encrypted historical texts such as the 250-year old text deciphered by Christiane Schaefer, Wolfgang Hock and Kevin Knight and described in Wired Magazine in November 2012, “They Cracked this 250-Year-Old Code and Found a Secret Society Inside.” This story made headlines around the world and it is the kind of break that makes waves well outside the academic communities and the small world of historical codebreakers.

Now you might say, didn’t he get his title wrong. Should it not be an “An Emerging Field” instead of “An Emerging Team.” Well, hopefully it will develop into an emerging field but my intention is to pay tribute to a small team of people who during the last few years have made significant progress in breaking historical cipher systems. They are George Lasry, Nils Kopal and professor Arno Wacker. Professor Wacker is the head of the research group “Applied Information Security” at the University of Kassel, where Nils Kopal is a Ph.D student and where also George Lasry now works on his Ph.D.

The team has already published three excellent articles in the journal Cryptologia, “Solving the Double Transposition Challenge with a Divide-and-Conquer Approach,” “Automated Known-Plaintext Cryptanalysis of Short Hagelin M-209 Messages,” “Ciphertext-only cryptanalysis of Hagelin M-209 pins and lugs,” and other publications are being prepared. However, before you dive in to study these interesting articles I would advice you to set aside one hour and listen to a talk George Lasry presented to the students and staff at the University of Kassel in October 2015, “Cracking Unsolved Historical Ciphers.” His talk is worth listening to and you probably will, like me, be inspired by his enthusiasm and great love for cryptology  and cryptanalysis. The rush of adrenaline you experience when you break one of these ciphers and see the plaintext starting to emerge is, as he describes it, a unique experience.

Having payed tribute to this outstanding team I should nevertheless add that there are others out there who are just as dedicated and who also have my great admiration. Some of them like to keep out of the limelight but that does not mean that they are lesser cryptanalysts, a few of them are simply amazing. I am honoured to count them among my friends. And I must not forget Klaus Schmeh for his tireless work of discovering new crypto challenges and new historical texts with cryptographic puzzles. If there is one person who keeps us supplied with cryptograms it is Klaus Schmeh.

And I should like to thanks my friend Christos who made me discover the talk of George Lasry, “Presentation on Solution of Historical Ciphers.” Thank you Chris.

Monday, 15 February 2016

Captain Walter J. Fried’s Fish Reports

Captain Walter J. Fried (1904–2003) was the US Army’s liaison officer at Bletchley Park (BP) in the period March to November 1944. Walter J. Fried was born in Lawrence on Long Island, New York in 1904. He graduated with magna cum laude from Harward in 1924 and received his law degree from Columbia Law School in 1928. He started his career as a lawyer by joining his father’s law firm in 1929. For more details about this life and career see his New York Times obituary:
Walter J. Fried, 99, Lawyer Involved in Co-op Conversions

In March 1944 he took over as US Army liaison officer at BP after his predecessor Lieutenant John Norman Seaman (1914–2002), who was liaison officer at BP from August 1943 to March 1944. Lieutenant Seaman, who was also a law graduate, returned to BP as liaison officer in May 1945 where he participated in the TICOM operations there and in Germany. He left the Army as Lieutenant Colonel in 1946 and continued his career as a lawyer.

Walter J. Fried’s first report, F-1 (IL 3331/A), is dated 11 March 1944, subject: Dutch Hagelin (NEA). He had then been working together with John Seaman to acquaint himself with his BP liaison duties. His last report is F-123 (IR4070) dated 29 November 1944, subject: Miscellaneous Items. He says he expects this to be his last formal report, which indeed it was. His sucessor was Albert W. Small (1910–1966, who was liaison officer from November 1944 to May 1945. Albert Small arrived already in October 1944 and worked with Walter Fried in the overlap period. The Fried reports F-114, dated 13 November, and F-115, dated 17 November, are both written by Albert Small while Fried was in Paris. On 11 November 1944 Fried was ordered to go to Paris for a period not to exceed two weeks.

Captain Walter J. Fried was a prolific report writer turning out reports of an extraordinary quality. For the historian of cryptologic history they are extremely valuable due to their very detailed overview of cryptanalytical operations, discoveries and problems taking place at BP during the period March to November 1944. The subjects treated and the technical and historical details that these reports contain set them out as some of the best cryptanalytical documents from this period.

Interesting is also the correspondance between Walter J. Fried and William F. Friedman showing the close friendship between these to US Army cryptologists. The correspondance is available here:
Fried–Friedman Correspondance

Hopefully I have got your attention and wetted your interest. If you want to study Captain Fried’s Fish Reports you should visit the page I have just created on CryptoCellar with his Fish Notes:
Captain Walter J. Fried’s Fish Reports

For the moment only three of the reports are there, F-46, F-68 and F-116, but I plan to publish others as soon as I get the time. Please visit the page again soon.

Update: As of 16 February 2016 there are now 22 Fish Notes online. Still missing is F-91 and the appendix of F-71. These will be added later.

Friday, 12 February 2016

CryptoCellar has again risen from the ashes


Like the mythological bird Phoenix my Web pages CryptoCellar at has risen from the ashes. Unfortunately it has taken longer than I anticipated. It is still the old, but nevertheless revised, pages that are back. It will probably take a lot more time before I have a new design ready. The ideas are there but the time and energy is lacking. At least I am now feeling that I am back on track and if I am not get too much sidetracked there are still hope that I will be able to present you with some new material from time to time. At least I should try to be a little more active on these pages, submitting the occasional news and ideas from the CryptoCellar world.
In the meantime please have a look at the old pages and see if there is still something there that you find interesting. Most of the stale links have been repaired and a few new ones have been added. I am sure there are still some sore points here and there, but I will try to deal with those in the days and weeks to come.