UK intelligence agency GCHQ has celebrated its centenary year by releasing emulators for famous code cipher and code breakers used in World War II.
Last week, GCHQ said on Twitter that the public can now try out the machines for themselves by way of simulators developed for CyberChef, GCHQ’s free, open-source web app designed for manipulating data and performing operations including Base64 encoding, compressing and decompressing data, as well as creating binary and hexdumps.
“We’ve brought technology from our past into the present by creating emulators for Enigma, Typex and The Bombe in #CyberChef,” the agency said. “We even tested them against the real thing! Try them out for yourself!”
Enigma machines were invented by German engineer Arthur Scherbius shortly after WW1 ended. The systems, which looked like traditional typewriters, were used to encrypt and decrypt messages.
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Every time a key was pressed, rotors would move to keep the ciphers used to encrypt messages changing continuously and providing 103 sextillion settings to pick from — leading the German forces in WW2 to believe that the coding system was unbreakable.
The Polish were the first to break Enigma and with war looming, the British set to the same task. As dramatized in the film The Imitation Game, Dilly Knox, Tony Kendrick, Peter Twinn, Gordon Welchman, and Alan Turing worked at Bletchley Park to break the code, succeeding in January 1940.
This was made possible through Bombe machines, code-breaking systems which were used to decrypt Enigma-enciphered messages relating to military operations during the war.
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Between three and 5,000 Enigma messages were intercepted on a daily basis. Bombe machines were used to discover daily keys, wheel orders, settings, and configurations and while some codes would take several hours to break, not every message could be decrypted.
Typex is a British variant of Enigma which was developed in 1934 for the Royal Air Force. Once the Bombe machines decrypted Enigma, Typex variants were used to decrypt messages manually.
Cracking Enigma is considered one of the major factors in the outcome of WW2 and remains one of the most important historical cases relating to cryptography and code-breaking today.
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CyberChef is available on GitHub, alongside the Enigma, Bombe, and Typex simulators and a full set of instructions and exercises. Machine power and code-breaking have come a long way since then, but the emulators provide valuable insight into the development of cryptography — and performing similar code-cracking activities can be fun, too.
If you’re interested in legacy computing, check out ZDNet’s feature which describes how volunteers from the National Museum of Computing have been working to rebuild the Electronic Delay Storage Automatic Calculator (EDSAC), one of the world’s first general purpose computers.
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