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Enemy Code Broken 137 Years Late

ScuttleMonkey posted more than 8 years ago | from the things-to-do-when-you're-bored dept.

61

Random Hall writes "Dr. Kent Boklan, a former NSA employee and current Director of Security Research for Razorpoint Security Technologies, has described how he recently deciphered a message encrypted by Confederate Army General Edmund Kirby Smith on 14 September 1862."

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Text of messages (-1, Flamebait)

ringbarer (545020) | more than 8 years ago | (#15477821)

"We'd better not let the niggers have any rights, otherwise they'd turn every metropolitan area into a ghetto!"

Insensitive clod (3, Funny)

iMaple (769378) | more than 8 years ago | (#15477830)

I am the enemy, you insensitive clod !

Re:Insensitive clod (-1, Offtopic)

hackwrench (573697) | more than 8 years ago | (#15478155)

You've weathered rather well.

Re:Insensitive clod (1)

WilliamSChips (793741) | more than 8 years ago | (#15478466)

We have met the enemy and he is us, you insensitive clod!

It says... (-1, Offtopic)

Anonymous Coward | more than 8 years ago | (#15477836)

"First Post" :-P

Let's just get this out of the way... (-1, Offtopic)

Anonymous Coward | more than 8 years ago | (#15477839)

The message is "DRINK MORE OVALTINE"???

Dan Brown, Leonardo DiVinci, and J.H.C. helped to encode the message. Tom Hanks just acted the part.

And I for once, welcome our new confederate overlords.

At least.... (1)

KingArthur10 (679328) | more than 8 years ago | (#15477842)

it didn't take that long to decode the enigma. That is one of the biggest problems with using technology to encode things, if the hardware falls into enemy hands, it can be deciphered much faster than capturing an enemy troop member high-enough up there in the chain of command willing to devulge the information through torture and such.

Well, technically, it was broken during the war (4, Interesting)

patio11 (857072) | more than 8 years ago | (#15477945)

Granted, this particular artifact was undecoded until recently, but the Confederates' crypto scheme was busted into little itty bits during the war. The reason was, drumroll please, user error. Just like the Germans in WWII, they had a decently-secure cryptographic method combined with keys which were repeated on a regular basis. I highly recommend the book The Ultra Secret for an in-depth discussion of how far the Allies got on breaking Ultra (the Engima code) even before they captured the hardware -- there were several German signal operators who were sloppy and one particular favorite of the Brits and Poles working on the problem used his girlfriend's initals to encrypt every message for years.

Cryptanalysis is, informally, the study of turning other peoples' "harmless mistakes" into "catastrophic errors". (Incidentally, this Confederate document got broken because they stored the cyphertext with plaintext which contained a sliver of the plaintext that was encoded, allowing the analyst to do a known-plaintext attack on the cypher. Thats also a boo-boo.)

The Codebreakers (1)

ishmalius (153450) | more than 8 years ago | (#15478244)

I love The Ultra Secret. I have read it several times. Mr. Winterbotham is obviously the real thing. But in my poor opinion, the supreme Holy Writ of the history of cryptology is The Codebreakers by David Kahn. The fact that the author of the article refers to that book is a better indicator of his expertise than his work resume. He "gets it."

The James Bamford books, in comparison, are bland, political, and legalistic. Not a good read at all.

But yes, you're right. The Achilles' Heel of any cryptosystem is human error. Most commonly it is when people send the same information via channels of different cryptographic quality, or mixing a good one with a broken one.

I second the recommendation (1)

swillden (191260) | more than 8 years ago | (#15480055)

But in my poor opinion, the supreme Holy Writ of the history of cryptology is The Codebreakers by David Kahn

Absolutely. Kahn's book is comprehensive, well-written and excellent. Anyone wanting to learn about the history of cryptology should start there.

Re:Well, technically, it was broken during the war (1)

MountainLogic (92466) | more than 8 years ago | (#15480582)

It is worth remembering that analog methods were invented around WWII that were very effective. Including an invention [uspto.gov] by Hedy Lamarr [wikipedia.org] (yes the film star) that used [wikipedia.org] frequency hopping spread spectrum. So we own WiFi to a very smart woman.

Re:Well, technically, it was broken during the war (1)

smvp6459 (896580) | more than 8 years ago | (#15480777)

Frankly, I think she not only owned WiFi but she PWNed WiFi.

Re:Well, technically, it was broken during the war (1)

smbarbour (893880) | more than 8 years ago | (#15481530)

That's Hedley! [wikipedia.org]

Sorry, couldn't resist. It's not every day that that name appears.

Security through obscurity is bad. (2, Insightful)

DrYak (748999) | more than 8 years ago | (#15478204)

That's also why security through obscurity [wikipedia.org] is bad. If your crypto algorithm is secret (as in a "secret machine" like Enigma, or as in "our brand new military-grade Bull-Shit-Algo(tm) is trade secret"), it becomes part of the key and has to be protected as well (as by Kerckhoffs' law [wikipedia.org] ).

That's where Enigma failed : it's internal functions were part of the secret. Once captured it could be reverse engeneered (and flaws in it discovered).
Compare to another technology based encoding : PGP, GPG, etc... they all operate on a known basis. If source code is found (which can easily be done in case of open-source implementations) security is not compromised, as the crypting doesn't rely on the algorithm being kept secret. Only the private key can compromise the crypting and has to be kept secret.

The lesser the secret, the easier it is to keep secret or to update in case of leak. (Compare : having to update all Enigma decoders vs. only changing keys used in PGP)

Usage of technology in encoding isn't that bad, as long as Kerckhoffs' law is respected.

On the other hand : high-enough troop members aren't that much reliable to keep information un-devulged, mostly because they aren't computationnaly as efficient as modern hardware. Anything that must be decipherable "mentally" by the troop must be easy enough to be done in his head. And therefor is more susceptible to dictionnary- / statistial- / brute-force attacks using powerful hardware.
So you don't even need to capture a troop member. You only need a computer that's much more powerful than the average troop's brain. And knowing how dumb military can get...

Re:Security through obscurity is bad. (1)

Detritus (11846) | more than 8 years ago | (#15478254)

Enigma failed because of the efforts of Marian Rejewski and his associates. It was mathematical analysis that won the day. Similarly, the Japanese Purple machine was broken and reverse engineered without any access to Japanese hardware.

Re:Security through obscurity is bad. (1)

LakeSolon (699033) | more than 8 years ago | (#15478367)

the Japanese Purple machine

I think it's time for me to re-read the non-fiction again when Purple [wikipedia.org] doesn't sound like the right name and Indigo [wikipedia.org] does.

Grammar difference (1)

DrYak (748999) | more than 8 years ago | (#15478567)

Sure. And I said "Once captured it could be reverse engeneered". Not was .

Also notice that most exploits of Enigma where based around flaws of the device that needed knowledge of internal workings.
Whether this interal were know by doing statistical reverse-engeneering on messages (the feats of Marian Rejewski [wikipedia.org] your refering to), or by getting actual machine (mentionned on the Enigma [wikipedia.org] article, but I don't have specific example), the key aspect is that once the working known, the code can be broken. Keeping secrets relies on keeping both the machine AND the keys secret.

The non-obscurity secured enigma would be if germany was selling the same units to everyone (even to allied forces) and that being no problem because the secrecy wouldn't rely on the machine it-self and the only way to decipher text would be to find the key. (Which is what happens today with modern ciphering methods).

Finally, I must also recall that Enigma wasn't a single machine that got broken once in history, but a whole family [wikipedia.org] , with germans constantly improving them on one side, and various team finding new weaknesses to exploit (or finding way to acheive results using remainging not-yet-patched vulnerabilities).

Re:Grammar difference (1)

stevelinton (4044) | more than 8 years ago | (#15478760)

The first Enigma machines were commercial freely available before WW2. While the Germans did try to keep
the exact design of the military machine secret, that was just normal paranoia, not because they knew the crypto was weak once you had the machine.
A standard 3 rotor Eingma has a keyspace of size 6 x 26^6, which in pre-digital computer days looked pretty good.

Re:Grammar difference (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 8 years ago | (#15478803)

Not to be as much of a dick as you, but you also said "That's where Enigma failed", whereas I think you'll find it failed elsewhere.

Re:Grammar difference (1)

Peter H.S. (38077) | more than 8 years ago | (#15481880)

Also notice that most exploits of Enigma where based around flaws of the device that needed knowledge of internal workings.

The vast majority of cracking enigma messages relied on "cribs", or sloppy handler procedures, like using the equivalent of "qwerty" as a random rotor setting(called "Herivelismus").

...the key aspect is that once the working known, the code can be broken. Keeping secrets relies on keeping both the machine AND the keys secret.

This is plain wrong. The Germans always counted on that the allies had access to all the enigma variants that existed, and with more than 100.000 enigma machines produced and distributed to frontline units, it was a very sensible thing to do, besides being in accordans with Kerckhoffs' law http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kerckhoffs'_law. [wikipedia.org]
In fact, without German procedural errors, or user errors, the allies would never have been able to crack enigma messages, no matter how well known the enigma machine internal wiring was. Even with todays technology it is a massive effort to brute force an enigma message.
The perhaps more important, but lesser known German crypto machine "Lorenz SZ 40/42" was broken by Bletchley Park without them having ever seeing a single machine.

--
Regards

Re:Security through obscurity is bad. (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 8 years ago | (#15478289)

If source code is found (which can easily be done in case of open-source implementations) security is not compromised, as the crypting doesn't rely on the algorithm being kept secret.
Since when is source code required for this?

Re:Security through obscurity is bad. (1)

Glock27 (446276) | more than 8 years ago | (#15478723)

That's also why security through obscurity is bad. If your crypto algorithm is secret (as in a "secret machine" like Enigma, or as in "our brand new military-grade Bull-Shit-Algo(tm) is trade secret"), it becomes part of the key and has to be protected as well (as by Kerckhoffs' law).

While there's some truth to this, lack of obscurity is a double-edged sword. If your enemy knows your encryption algorithm, it can attack it from a much better position. How many years has NSA been grinding away at (for instance) SSH with all of its vast resources? Is SSH still secure with regards to the NSA? Only the NSA knows.

Military encryption has been the difference between victory and defeat more than once. It seems elementary common sense to reveal as little about it as possible to potential adversaries.

Re:Security through obscurity is bad. (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 8 years ago | (#15480116)

If your enemy knows your encryption algorithm, it can attack it from a much better position. How many years has NSA been grinding away at (for instance) SSH with all of its vast resources? Is SSH still secure with regards to the NSA?

Most public academic cryptologists believe that with respect to block ciphers and public key ciphers -- the core componenents of the SSH cipher suite -- the NSA is not far ahead of the public community. These conclusions are based on weaknesses found in NSA reviewed or created ciphers, and on the sort of collaboration the NSA's researchers are doing with public researchers of late.

Of course, the NSA *wants* us to think that it's not far ahead of the public community. So either they're so far ahead they can confidently screw up by way of misinformation, secure in the knowledge that the weaknesses they're introducing will be minor, or they're really only slightly ahead of the public researchers, and even learn from the public community from time to time. I would put my money on the latter, but if my life depended on hiding something from the NSA, I might assume the former, just to be safe.

Copy-paste Linus' law (1)

DrYak (748999) | more than 8 years ago | (#15481410)

Call me stuborn, but I stick to Eric S. Raymond's philosophy :
"With enough eyes, all bugs are shallow".

If after years of public scrutinity, a very large community of cryptographer consider a given crypto-algo of not being flawed, chances are, that it'll be less flawed than something you secretly put together in hast in some dark and secret bunker.

Concerning the mention of "military-grade" :
I mentioned it because most of the time (as proved, for exemple by guillermito [guillermito2.net] ), when a program advertise itself as "military-grade" and "unbreakable", you're sure to end-up with something deeply broken like clear-text passwords or rot13 cypher.

Re:Security through obscurity is bad. (1)

lon3st4r (973469) | more than 8 years ago | (#15486158)

exactly my sentiments!

and so we vote for open sourced systems for encrypted polling machines ;)

amen!

* lon3st4r *

What a load of bollocks (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 8 years ago | (#15478232)

Enigma was vunerable in part due to weaknesses in the design and partly because key materials were seized but the Polish guys who originally broke it didn't have access to the hardware at all - they reconstructed a mathmatical model of the machine without ever having access to the real thing.

Also, technology actually allows encryption schemes where the user doesn't know the key - thus making the system more resistant to torturing information out of people, not less.

Finally, there really are no pen and paper systems that can withstand modern cryptanalysis - if you want your stuff kept secret, you need to either not write it down or use proper machine-crypto written by people with a clue...

Didn't take that long to break enigma? (2, Interesting)

brokeninside (34168) | more than 8 years ago | (#15478617)

It took four years to break the three wheel enigma and that was with access to the Enigma manual that had the plain text of an encoded message. Breaking the form of enigma used by the German navy took longer and the allies spent thousands of man hours building machines that could perform the calculations fast enough. Also, it took additional thousands upon thousands of man hours to create and operate a machine that could decode the four wheel enigma machine when it was introduced in 1942.

It's true what they say... (5, Insightful)

onallama (515297) | more than 8 years ago | (#15477849)

...a code doesn't have to be unbreakable forever; it just has to be unbreakable for long enough.

Re:It's true what they say... (3, Informative)

kestasjk (933987) | more than 8 years ago | (#15477870)

RTFA; the author didn't allow himself to use any methods which weren't available at the time. He didn't use computers, and this message could have been broken in the same way and in the same amount of time as when it was written.

To summarise it was a known plaintext attack. His signature was EKS, and he signed his signature encrypted. The author worked back from there.

Re:It's true what they say... (1)

Blnky (35330) | more than 8 years ago | (#15481846)

I have to admit, that was what impressed me the most. I would have written a software solution myself. Doing it all with only his mind, pencil and paper was just way too cool.

Re:It's true what they say... (2, Funny)

0racle (667029) | more than 8 years ago | (#15477904)

Not long enough yet, now the South will never rise again.

Re:It's true what they say... (1)

Lord Kano (13027) | more than 8 years ago | (#15480303)

This didn't change the result of the war.

LK

Re:It's true what they say... (2, Funny)

hawk (1151) | more than 8 years ago | (#15481838)

I dunno.

Something's up if the Confederacy was still issuing messages 137 years ago--in 1869, five ears after that little meeting at the courthouse . . . :)

(yes, the figures come from the article, which describes the letter appearing in a 1999 catalog, which was indeed 137 years after the message. The article then calls it "recently" decoded in a 2006 article.

The ever-alert slashdot editors caught this, of course . . .

hawk

Details... (3, Informative)

damaged (60781) | more than 8 years ago | (#15477855)

First off, why the hell is this under IT?!?

It would have been nice if the write-up gave a little more detail. It was encrypted using a Vigenere cipher [wikipedia.org] with a key of "BALTIMORE".

For those too lazy to read the article, here's what the message said:

The enemy rapidly concentrating at Louisville and Covington. They are confident of soon crushing my force here it is important out communication with each other should be kept open I shall present a bold front in order to deceive the enemy as long as possible and when compelled I shall fall back upon you. Marshall is still far behind. E.K.S.

Re:Details... (1, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | more than 8 years ago | (#15477877)

First off, why the hell is this under IT?!?
because cryptography is a technology for securing information.

Re:Details... (2, Insightful)

MichaelSmith (789609) | more than 8 years ago | (#15477912)

These guys made every mistake in the book. Putting obvious known words in your plaintext "Louisville", "Covington", "enemy" is asking for trouble. There should be a speech code inside the plaintext, one that can be changed from time to time. Use numbers for your places and throw the plan away at the end of the operation.

Given that there was some really good maths being done 137 years ago the crypto these people used is surprisingly poor.

Re:Details... (1)

Detritus (11846) | more than 8 years ago | (#15478231)

I wouldn't be too critical of the General. A Vigenere cipher was high security compared to many of the ciphers in use at the time. I am puzzled by the Confederate reliance on three "sacred keys". I would have expected them to change keys on a regular basis.

The telegraph was new technology and it must have taken time to understand its advantages and vulnerabilities. Similar problems accompanied the introduction of radio telgraphy.

Re:Details... (2, Informative)

Vlad_the_Inhaler (32958) | more than 8 years ago | (#15478375)

Napoleon's armies used a far better encryption scheme 60 years earlier.

Their system was numbers up to (I think) 1000,
  • some of those numbers represented letters, numbers, special characters; several different numbers would map to a single character
  • some mapped to names, places, words
  • some mapped to nothing at all. They were simply there to confuse the issue.


Sometimes messages were a mixture of clear text and code. One of them (which was meant to be intercepted) ran something like: I am confident of repulsing the enemy's attack if I receive major reinforcements. Obviously only the second part was in code.

The code was eventually cracked in the Peninsula campaign (Spain) by Wellington's army, partially through brilliance on the part of the crackers and partially through mistakes by the French. Some of these mistakes were:
  • the code was extended by 200(?) numbers. All of these extras were names, words or places relevant to the Peninsula campaign. The fact that these extras were in a block rather than spread around weakened the code.
  • Some of the mixed code/cleartext messages were very poorly thought out
  • the sheer volume of intercepted messages. The French were hated and the Guerillas intercepted a *lot* of their communications.
  • the French kept to one code sheet far too long


At some late stage in the campaign, an actual codesheet was captured. This was actually bad because the French were forced to adopt a new one, but by then the outcome of the campaign was no longer in doubt.

Re:Details... (1)

advocate_one (662832) | more than 8 years ago | (#15478682)

the biggest mistake was in leaving the encrypted message words as they were and not segregating it into four letter groups and leaving the decoder to recover the words back afterwards. It allowed him to geuss that one of the words was a placename... if they'd been four letter groups then he'd have been stuffed. All he would have had then was the short three letter "signature" giving him just "MOR" from the key

Re:Details... (1)

elrous0 (869638) | more than 8 years ago | (#15479074)

These guys made every mistake in the book.

...or maybe that's just what they WANT us to think. [cue ominous music]

-Eric

Re:Details... (1)

pclminion (145572) | more than 8 years ago | (#15480850)

Actually, the real problem is that they included the original spaces in the ciphertext. This is basically unencrypted information leaking through. This allowed the analyst to locate the encrypted form of the word "Louisville." It was this one big break that revealed the entire key.

Had the cipher makers not included spaces, and just packed all the words directly together, this attack would not have been so easy. There are other methods for determining the key of a Vigenere cipher, but they are difficult to use on such short messages.

Hooray Edmund Kirby Smith! (3, Funny)

XanC (644172) | more than 8 years ago | (#15477880)

As a Tulanian [tulane.edu] , anybody who burned down LSU [wikipedia.org] is A-OK in my book. :-)

Re:Hooray Edmund Kirby Smith! (1)

RESPAWN (153636) | more than 8 years ago | (#15478757)

As another Tulanian, I have to say: "L S who?"

relevence? (0)

Baloo Ursidae (29355) | more than 8 years ago | (#15477954)

Ho hum. Caeser ciphers aren't new or ingenious...

Re:relevence? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 8 years ago | (#15478088)

Yeah, If they're going to write an article on a coded message from 137 years ago they should darn well make sure they choose one written in a modern, new cipher.

Re:relevence? (1)

RedWizzard (192002) | more than 8 years ago | (#15478106)

Ho hum. Caeser ciphers aren't new or ingenious...
A fine sentiment to express had the Caeser cipher (or even a general monoalphabetic cipher) been used here. But it wasn't. They used a Vignere cipher. So next time, RTFA, don't just glance over it.

Re:relevence? (1)

d_jedi (773213) | more than 8 years ago | (#15481507)

Likewise, Vigenre ciphers aren't new or ingenious.. they are pretty trivial to break nowadays.

Re:relevence? (1)

RedWizzard (192002) | more than 8 years ago | (#15483083)

they are pretty trivial to break nowadays.
With a computer, sure. By hand, for short messages, they can be very difficult to break. This particular message is something like 280 letters with a keyword length of 9. That means you've only got about 31 letters per key letter for frequency analysis. To make it easier Kirby-Smith kindly left the spaces in, but on the other hand he made some mistakes.

What do you expect from a bear... (1)

Hartree (191324) | more than 8 years ago | (#15479070)

Since when is 2/3 of what's on slashdot new or ingenious?

137 Years (3, Funny)

MrNonchalant (767683) | more than 8 years ago | (#15477976)

Wow. I knew Slashdot had a habit of posting old news, but this takes the cake. I am so leaving for Digg.

Re:137 Years (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 8 years ago | (#15478464)

Great. We'll have a going away party for you after you leave.

Re:137 Years (1)

Rob T Firefly (844560) | more than 8 years ago | (#15478914)

Better late than never!

The Message (2, Funny)

charlesbakerharris (623282) | more than 8 years ago | (#15478054)

Lee thinks your plan stupidest idea ever STOP Lincoln not even that big a theater fan STOP Will probably have invented secret service in time to foil plot anyway STOP Come up with something else or quit wasting telegraph bandwidth with these moronic ideas STOP

What they don't tell you... (3, Funny)

masterzora (871343) | more than 8 years ago | (#15478138)

It was a decoy! It was meant to be broken and the South would have won if the North took the bait! Irony is so sweet!

(Yes, that is entirely a joke. I still expect to see 15 people asking where I found that information, and not just the ones looking for a +5 Funny. Oh well, such is life.)

Easy solution (3, Funny)

commodoresloat (172735) | more than 8 years ago | (#15478506)

I still expect to see 15 people asking where I found that information

Just write it into the Wikipedia article on the Civil War and tell everyone that's where you found it. Problem solved!

Re:What they don't tell you... (1)

mooingyak (720677) | more than 8 years ago | (#15479276)

It was a decoy! It was meant to be broken and the South would have won if the North took the bait!

Can you back that up with anything? Or are you just a whale? Because whales spout water, and you're spouting... well, not water. Never mind.

Codes... (1)

DigitalBubblebath (708955) | more than 8 years ago | (#15479135)

Interesting stuff, must be quite exciting to be the first to see a piece of secret history!
This is an interesting book I read recently on Vigenere, RSA, and others: The Code Book [amazon.co.uk] . Good read.

That's funny ... (3, Funny)

kthejoker (931838) | more than 8 years ago | (#15479172)

I didn't know Ovaltine had been invented in 1862 ...

Enemy Code, Broken, 137 Years Late... (1)

mi11house (978673) | more than 8 years ago | (#15485565)

A new Slashdot synonym for Vista?

Cause for termination? (1)

mattbrundage (856096) | more than 8 years ago | (#15488442)

Deciphering code from the Civil War instead of the War on Terror?!? Methinks this is why Kent Boklan is a former NSA employee.
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