Up Close with an Enigma

At last month’s RSA conference in San Francisco, I stumbled upon a vintage 1944 model of the German crypothographic machine, popularly known as the Enigma. This particular machine was owned by the National Cryptologic Museum, and was part of a larger booth hosted by the National Security Agency. The staff at the exhibit were quite friendly and it didn’t take much to convince someone from the NSA to talk on-camera about the Enigma. (I did decide to submit the video to the NSA public affairs office for final review.) Reading through the accompanying historical pamphlet and listening to NSA staffers, I developed a better appreciation for the contributions made by Polish authorities (and mathematicians) towards breaking what was then, the most important cryptographic machine in the world.

Also from RSA 2009:

  • Making Mashups Safe(r) with MashSSL: Of the ten presentations at the inaugural RSA Innovation Sandbox, I thought the most intriguing technology came from SafeMashups (a startup out of UT San Antonio). They use SSL certificates and handshakes as the foundation for a scalable trust infrastructure.
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    • Phil Rhodes

      The video is a little misleading; the Allies weren’t reading all the Enigma traffic. There were certain machines they could read due to mishandling by the operators & other factors. There were also a few Japanese Enigmas that were broken.

      I highly recommend Codebreakers: The Inside Story of Bletchley Park (Amazon Link). The first half is fairly non-technical & gives a good history from several points of view.


    • History Guy

      A Polish auxiliary sub surrendered to the allies with a working Enigma and the long term codebook.

      Most of what’s passed off as cracking the codes was simply about translating the sheer volume of German communications.

      PS: The UK didn’t invent radar in WW2 either. The Germans has already deployed it in Zepplins in WW1.

    • Phil Rhodes

      “Most of what’s passed off as cracking the codes was simply about translating the sheer volume of German communications.”

      Reference, please?

      A naval Enigma + codebook would only help with the Navy side of things. Different branches (i.e., the Luftwaffe and Army) used different code sets; there were even different sets in use in the same service in different theaters. Not to mention the Japanese Enigmas.


    • My landlord while I was studying in Bergen, Norway had 3 (!) Enigma machines, including manuals, cases and the extra “Uhr”. Of course, he also had a giant basement full of Flaks, schwimwagens, radios and a tank too.

    • John Frook

      This is important. Thank you. The network matters. Wish we had a way to distinguish between music and reportage so that reportage videos automatically played at half the volume and needed to be turned up, were the last thing the end user was using was music and had it cranked. Can you do that, and own the code for it? Loved this piece, will bookmark, may use in The I Is.

    • Falafulu Fisi

      When Dr. Peter Shor published his breakthru quantum computing algorithm the Shor Algorithm, it excited lots of scientists about its potential application for breaking the widely used public-key cryptography scheme known as RSA. I believe (which I read it somewhere on the internet) that NSA is funding (or working closely with) scientists at Los Alamos to develop Quantum Cryptography in order to enhance the security of the communication systems of US government agencies.