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Public Invited to Try Their Luck Against Old Cipher Tech 95

Posted by ScuttleMonkey
from the squeamish-ossifrage dept.
Stony Stevenson writes to tell us that in celebration of the opening of the National Museum of Computing, members of the public are being challenged to take on a rebuilt version of Colossus, the world's first programmable digital computer. The Cipher Challenge will take two groups of amateur code breakers and pit them against one of the original Lorenz cipher machine used by the German High Command during World War II. "The encrypted teleprinter message will be transmitted by radio from colleagues in Paderborn, Germany, and intercepted at Bletchley Park by the two code-breaking groups, one using modern PCs and the other using the newly rebuilt Colossus Mark II."
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Public Invited to Try Their Luck Against Old Cipher Tech

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  • by blhack (921171) * on Tuesday November 13, 2007 @03:11PM (#21339855)
    TFA didn't really explain the colossus that well:

    Wiki link [wikipedia.org] for those who are interested.
    • by Pulzar (81031)
      From the article:

      Colossus documentation and hardware were classified from the moment of their creation and remained so after the War, when Winston Churchill specifically ordered the destruction of most of the Colossus machines into 'pieces no bigger than a man's hand'; Tommy Flowers personally burned blueprints in a furnace at Dollis Hill.

      Why would they do this after the war? Wouldn't they want to explore the technology for other uses, and profit further from the leadership in this field they developed? I m
      • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

        by yahooadam (1068736)
        "Why would they do this after the war? Wouldn't they want to explore the technology for other uses, and profit further from the leadership in this field they developed? I mean, what's the reason for hiding (and, worse, destroying!) their code-breaking machine after the war has ended?"
        Maybe they were just trying to hide it

        I mean, if people could get holds of the plans on colossus, and find out how the cipher was done, they could probably work out much more difficult encryption methods
        if you think about it, c
        • by Pulzar (81031)

          colossus was the absolute peak of what we could do, if anyone got hold of that it would be a dangerous weapon

          That would be like developing the atomic bomb, and then promptly destroying every trace of it because it's a dangerous weapon. Countries that develop new dangerous weapons tend to keep them around (and use them) to keep the advantage they got from having it.

          Plus, if it were me in that situation, I wouldn't be able to resist the temptation to gloat and say "hehe, look, we had a computer all along that

          • That'd be a bit shortsighted. We didn't tell the Japanese that we had broken some of their codes during the war, and they proceeded to continue to use some of the compromised ones for years thereafter. Had we been as quick to stand around gloating as you we'd have lost the potential intel for years to come.
          • by Anonymous Coward
            If only that had happened. We could have won WWII without them. No reason to use them again has cropped up. They are just a burden on humanity.
      • by Ash Vince (602485) on Tuesday November 13, 2007 @04:13PM (#21340761) Journal

        Why would they do this after the war? Wouldn't they want to explore the technology for other uses, and profit further from the leadership in this field they developed? I mean, what's the reason for hiding (and, worse, destroying!) their code-breaking machine after the war has ended?
        The main reason for the destruction was that we no longer needed the same number of machines. We did keep two though I believe which were moved to GCHQ (General Communications Head Quarters - Our eavesdropping department). We certainly did not destroy them all but much of what they did after the war will still be classified.
        • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

          by mlush (620447)
          The main reason for the destruction (of Colossus) was that we no longer needed the same number of machines. We did keep two though I believe which were moved to GCHQ (General Communications Head Quarters - Our eavesdropping department). We certainly did not destroy them all but much of what they did after the war will still be classified. I've heard scurrilous rumors that the Enigma (Do I really need to wiki link it:-) machines were sold on to other nations...
          • You're right - that was one of the main reason why the tech was supressed. We could then read the 'secure' messages of our 'allies'.

            Plus ca change...
      • by Agripa (139780)
        Why would they do this after the war? Wouldn't they want to explore the technology for other uses, and profit further from the leadership in this field they developed? I mean, what's the reason for hiding (and, worse, destroying!) their code-breaking machine after the war has ended?

        I remember watching a documentary a couple years ago about the development of the computer industry and the destruction and classification of the British systems after the war was specifically mentioned as being a significant set
      • They did not want anyone to know how successful we were at decryption. Remember, the Colussus wasn't really a general purpose computer - it was good at cryptanlaysis.

        A few of the staff went on to do further interesting things with computers (e.g. at Manchester) but many never got the recognition they deserved, and died before anyone even knew of the things they had done. Husbands and wives didn't tell each other.
    • One bit from the article:

      Colossus was the first of the electronic digital machines to feature limited programmability. It was not, however, a fully general Turing-complete computer, even though Alan Turing worked at Bletchley Park. It was not then realized that Turing completeness was significant; most of the other pioneering modern computing machines were also not Turing complete (e.g. the Atanasoff-Berry Computer, the Harvard Mark I electro-mechanical relay machine, the Bell Labs relay machines (by George Stibitz et al), or the first designs of Konrad Zuse). The notion of a computer as a general purpose machine, as more than a calculator devoted to solving difficult but specific problems, would not become prominent for several years.

  • We could make this into an excellent geeky sporting event... They'll be selling seats at the door for $7.50 apiece, a mascot of a giant padlock covered in binary will roll around the sidelines, and a bunch of cheerleaders will be dancing around cheering... safely behind plexiglass from the geekiest ones. Next, to sell this to ESPN...
  • by Anne_Nonymous (313852) on Tuesday November 13, 2007 @03:14PM (#21339915) Homepage Journal
    Drink more Ovaltine.
    • Re: (Score:1, Funny)

      by Anonymous Coward
      Be Sure To Drink Your Ovaltine

      (sorry)
    • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

      by Anonymous Coward
      SON OF A BITCH!
  • A real contest? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by mistersooreams (811324) on Tuesday November 13, 2007 @03:14PM (#21339921) Homepage
    The article doesn't explain how 1940s hardware competing with modern hardware is a remotely interesting contest. The reason is that the Collosus machines (Collosi?) were both highly specialised for the task, in that they could not do anything but simulate a Lorentz machine very fast, and of course massively parallel. In particular, Collosus was not Turing-complete, so it could not execute arbitrary programs (in the modern sense) - the honour of first Turing-complete machine usually goes to the ENIAC, although this is hotly disputed. So, this might be an interesting contest, although I would still expect a good modern implementation to win. More information, as always, at Wikipedia [wikipedia.org].
    • Re:A real contest? (Score:4, Interesting)

      by NeoSkink (737843) on Tuesday November 13, 2007 @04:13PM (#21340753)
      Z3 beat ENIAC by a couple of years.

      http://www.zib.de/zuse/Inhalt/Kommentare/Html/0684/universal2.html
    • Re:A real contest? (Score:4, Insightful)

      by rts008 (812749) on Tuesday November 13, 2007 @06:08PM (#21342419) Journal
      "The article doesn't explain how 1940s hardware competing with modern hardware is a remotely interesting contest."

      Without it being spelled out to me, I am thoroughly taken with this idea. (only true computer geeks need apply, basically)

      I think it would be cool to participate in this, but I would especially like to be on the Collosus team just to get to play with this icon of computer geekdom. I suspect that the modern pc's could smoke Collosus (with the right setup), but this gives a chance to gauge our progress, compare apples and oranges like only a comp. geek can, and otherwise rejoice in our geekiness.

      So admittedly, this isn't interesting for just anyone-even here on /. , but to some of us, this is just too much fun/interest to pass up.

      We see quite a few stories about comparisons between PS3 'super computers' pitted against older supercomputers, we see ad hoc distributed systems compared to older super computers, so why not modern PC's compared to The Super Computer that started it all. (okay, that last bit may have been over the top, and not real accurate...but come on man!)

      On the Spock Scale, I rate this one as:
      *raised eyebrow*'Fascinating, Captain.'
    • Re:A real contest? (Score:4, Interesting)

      by McSnarf (676600) * on Tuesday November 13, 2007 @07:16PM (#21343161)
      *The article doesn't explain how 1940s hardware competing with modern hardware is a remotely interesting contest.*

      I had the luck to visit the Bletchley Park facility earlier this year. (Are you a True Geek? Do the same. They need the money and I mean that.)

      That piece of '40s hardware might look like a crossbreed of a Wells time machine and a phone exchange, but it was (the replica is) incredibly fast. At one very specific task only, solving one of a class of problems. Do not overestimate the speed of a modern PC - it is kept back by years and years of inefficient programming. The people working on Colossus were Real Programmers of the first order (no quiche!). I'd expect the race to be pretty close.

    • You're thinking too hard.

      This isn't about competition... it's just a fun way to engage the public with a little history, and promote the museum on the side.

      From the article:

      "Witnessing Colossus Mark II in action is a chance to relive and admire the historic breakthrough made by Bletchley Park code breakers during World War II."

      Given that Slashdotters aren't usually discussing and researching the Colossus project, I'd say they did a good job. :)

  • Original Cypher? (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Ironsides (739422)

    A working replica of the code-breaking device will return to active service as part of the Cipher Challenge on 15 November to mark the launch of the National Museum of Computing.


    So it looks like they are using the original wheel combinations, which are widely known. This means I could probably emulate Colossus on my calculator and still solve it faster.
    • Pitty they could not get the original girls back. When the machines were rebuilt, they came to B.P. and went back into their old routine. During the war after a while they would "guess" possible start position combinations. No time for that, shame. I was deeply impressed with their retained "bone knowledge" at the time. Also a shame not replicating "Y" stations, and sending the intercepts by motorbike.
      • by Ironsides (739422)

        Pitty they could not get the original girls back. When the machines were rebuilt, they came to B.P. and went back into their old routine. During the war after a while they would "guess" possible start position combinations. No time for that, shame. I was deeply impressed with their retained "bone knowledge" at the time. Also a shame not replicating "Y" stations, and sending the intercepts by motorbike.

        Alas, while my Grandfather fought in the Pacific and I have read a bit on the Enigma, I'm not sure what some of these are. What are "Y" stations, "bone knowledge" and by "guess" do you mean making a prediction and coming out very close to the actual starting combination?

  • No, seriously. Having a bunch of RTTY gear over here, this might be a fun Thursday diversion....
  • by king-manic (409855) on Tuesday November 13, 2007 @03:23PM (#21340021)
    WWII might have been a great deal more expensive in terms of humans lives, duration, and overall destruction is it wasn't for the people at Bletchley park and their counterparts in the US Army Signals Intelligence Service. It's unfortunate that their contribution remained a secret for so long. Imagine how much damage Yamamoto could have done if his strategies and feints weren't all known to the Americans or if all the German troop movements weren't deduced from their communications.

    • Hooray for Arthur Scherbius, too bad that witch gave him that apple...
    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by initialE (758110)
      Isn't it a shame that the treatment of Alan Turing after the war drove him to suicide though, as though all of his contributions meant nothing to the people. All that mattered to them was that he was a homosexual.
      • by king-manic (409855) on Tuesday November 13, 2007 @07:54PM (#21343625)

        Isn't it a shame that the treatment of Alan Turing after the war drove him to suicide though, as though all of his contributions meant nothing to the people. All that mattered to them was that he was a homosexual.
        He is truly the father of modern computing and he achieved a lot in his short life. He was monumental to the Allied war effort and a once in a generation math genius. It's really too bad the people of his time couldn't look past his sexuality.

        On a side note: I'm straight but I'd do Turing for the geek cred :D
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by kestasjk (933987)

      It's unfortunate that their contribution remained a secret for so long.
      At least you didn't take one of your best cryptanalysts and drive them to suicide by forcing them to take hormone injections or go to prison for the crime of being a homosexual, like we did in England. That's one way to treat a war hero.
    • by BlindJesse (26572)
      Don't forget the US Naval work in Dayton, which is yet to be fully appreciated.
      http://www.daytoncodebreakers.org/ [daytoncodebreakers.org]

      Incidentally, the building in which the work is done is scheduled to be torn down by the University of Dayton any day now.
    • by Yvanhoe (564877)
      I think to recall that the Japanese code was cracked by a totally different, american team. And unless I am having my reality mixed up with Stephenson's Cryptonomicon (dont'read it, go buy a history book about WWII true Bletchley Park, far more fascinationg) they first had to get a code book for this.
  • by markg11cdn (1087925) on Tuesday November 13, 2007 @03:25PM (#21340063)
    More details on the challenge (and Colussus) can be found here : http://www.tnmoc.co.uk/cipher1.htm [tnmoc.co.uk]

    At the same time as the international team receives the enciphered messages, radio amateurs around the world will be able to receive the same radio broadcasts and try their hand at decrypting it. It will be fascinating to see who completes the job first!
  • oblig. (Score:2, Funny)

    by Rob T Firefly (844560)
    This is the voice of world control.
  • http://imdb.com/title/tt0064177/ [imdb.com] Forbin Project: We built a super computer with a mind of its own and now we must fight it for the world!
  • This thing won't even be a race at all if the modern pc is equipped with a method of contacting Bruce Schneier. Remember, folks, he's the only guy that can encrypt things in ROT13 TWICE and still have the cipher unbreakable.
  • Here's the museum's website: http://www.tnmoc.co.uk/ [tnmoc.co.uk]
    • Also note:

      At the same time as the international team receives the enciphered messages, radio amateurs around the world will be able to receive the same radio broadcasts and try their hand at decrypting it. It will be fascinating to see who completes the job first!

      http://www.tnmoc.co.uk/cipher1.htm

  • Old school (Score:4, Funny)

    by Quiet_Desperation (858215) on Tuesday November 13, 2007 @03:54PM (#21340469)

    thisi sstil ltheb estan dmost unbre akabl ecode
    • by u8i9o0 (1057154)

      thisi sstil ltheb estan dmost unbre akabl ecode

      That reminds me of a little fun I had a long while ago.

      Some friends of mine were emailing each other, developing similar 'encrypting' schemes. The one they ultimately shared with me was the nospacesorpunctuationsintheentiremessage type of thing, and how awesome it was.

      In response, I decided to show them a few tricks: a pseudo-substitution cipher (L33T speak, actually) fed into a columnar transposition cipher. But the really fun part was actually within the pl

    • thisi sstil ltheb estan dmost unrem arkabl ecode
  • If it ain't broke, don't fix it. Wait, which cipher are they using? Ooops.
  • Team A.T.T. & N.S.A.

    (Providing that the data is routed through S.F., of course.)
  • Watch Out (Score:3, Funny)

    by Wellington Grey (942717) on Tuesday November 13, 2007 @04:15PM (#21340787) Homepage Journal
    "Colossus marked the beginning of the modern age of computing, a heritage that we are planning to preserve by raising £6m to establish a world-class facility at Bletchley Park," said Tony Sale, co-founder of the National Museum of Computing.

    Watch out! Don't connect that thing to the internet -- your 40 year old version of Norton won't be any good. Wouldn't want to turn six million pounds into just another botnet zombie :)

    -Grey [silverclipboard.com]
    • Don't worry, Windows was still 40+ years in the future. No one had invented plug-n-play autopwn until MS came along.

  • The life that I have
    Is all that I have
    And the life that I have
    Is yours

    The love that I have
    Of the life that I have
    Is yours and yours and yours.

    A sleep I shall have
    A rest I shall have
    Yet death will be but a pause
    For the peace of my years
    In the long green grass
    Will be yours and yours and yours.

    Bletchley Park also used poems [wikipedia.org] as cypher keys. This [wikipedia.org] is probably the best as literature, but looks a bit repetitive to be secure.

    • by mikeb (6025)
      That (famous) poem was written by Leo Marks who was the codemaster for the British Special Operations Executive. He spent most of the war wishing he was working at Bletchley Park but didn't (although they knew about his coding schemes). His autobiography "Between Silk and Cyanide" is a humorous and very moving account of his time during the war and some of the agents he met who lost their lives. That poem was written for his girlfriend who was killed in an aircraft crash - later he passed it on to Violette
  • erau qssi dlro weht
  • The summary is not quite correct: Colossus was not the first programmable computer. Cf. the table halfway down in the wikipedia article http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Colossus_computer [wikipedia.org] that shows the Z3 preceeding it by a few years.
  • The person who wrote the summary did not do their research. The Colossus was not the first digital computer:
    Atanasoff Berry Computer [wikipedia.org]

    The ABC predates colossus by a couple years and the page has some very nice charts detailing what old computers did and when.

  • by ockegheim (808089) on Tuesday November 13, 2007 @10:53PM (#21345167)

    If mechanical calulators and computers interest you I highly recommend the Arathmeum [uni-bonn.de] in Bonn, Germany. There are machines from the 17th-20th centuries and you're allowed to try some of them yourself. Even my wife enjoyed it.

  • If the PCs are running M$ ..... my money is on Colossus
  • A slightly ironic detail: It seems the Germans don't have any Lorenz SZ42 machines left [chaos-paderborn.de], and they have to borrow one from the British GCHQ [gchq.gov.uk], while promising not to repossess it as war loot.
    • Oh, marvellous. This is some nerdy test, posting links in German?

      Thanks to the efforts of the crypto boys, (started off by the Poles, let's not forget), and also of the many of my ancestors sadly buried around Europe during WWI and II, I was not forced to learn the language ;-)
    • Reading that German text, the Bletchley Park people wanted guarantees that the Germany would not declare the Lorenz SZ42 to be 'spoils of war' ('war loot' does not have the same ring about it) and just keep it. Presumably that is the reason the Allies have them and the Germans do not in the first place.

      The German Ministry of Defence (DoD over there) and the office of the Bundeskanzlerin were also involved in the assurances that the SZ42 would not be kept.

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