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President’s Forum Speaker, Dr. Timothy Mucklow, Presents German Enigma Machine
October 11, 2012
When thinking of information assurance, most of today’s students immediately think of the Internet and cybersecurity. But Dr. Timothy Mucklow, a senior historian at the Center for Cryptologic History, dispelled the idea that information assurance is only a product of today’s digital world when he visited campus for the President’s Forum on Wednesday, Oct. 10.
“Cybersecurity” may be a relatively new field, but “information assurance” has been around much longer and even played a crucial role in World War II.
Mucklow provided a strong history lesson in information assurance to those in attendance when he presented the infamous German Enigma machine and the lesser known American machine, SIGABA.
Both machines were available for view as Mucklow began describing the German Enigma, which was considered by the German military to be unbreakable. The encoding system theoretically generated 3x10114 ciphering possibilities, and the Germans would encrypt each message based on a secret pin code that was generated daily. The person receiving the message would then decode the message with another, identical Enigma that was set to that day’s specification.
Mucklow detailed the Polish, British and American efforts to decrypt Enigma messages and told the story of how the machine was finally cracked. Importantly, the Allied forces did not immediately act on the information they gained from encrypted messages, which prevented the Germans from realizing their intricate system had been cracked.
“Anytime [German] ultra information was used, there were always one or two plausible reasons for the result,” Muckow said. “There were many times when Churchill and Roosevelt were reading messages intended for Hitler before even he was.”
For example, if a German submarine was sunk by Allied forces, the Allies would make the Germans think that the submarine’s location had been determined through other means. And while the Enigma provided vast amounts of confidential information, reading the messages was not easy despite the code being cracked.
“It would take about 12 or 13 hours, on average, to break an enigma message,” Mucklow said.
After detailing the fascinating story of the Enigma, Mucklow then took time to describe America’s similar encryption machine, the SIGABA. Incredibly, where the Enigma had three rotors that generated codes, the SIGABA possessed 15 rotors.
“By today’s standards [the SIGABA] is considered unbreakable,” Mucklow said. “All the Germans and Japanese knew about the machine was that they couldn’t break it.”
Even though the SIGABA was never broken, the Americans using the machines still took precaution in sending messages.
“We always maintained a healthy anxiety about code being broken, so we didn’t make the same mistakes the Germans did,” Mucklow said. “When it came to critical information, we protected it throughout the second World War.
“In the business of cryptology, you protect your information. Honestly, we could have given the Germans one of the machines and they wouldn’t have been able to crack it. It was that powerful.”
And still, no SIGABA was ever captured. Every machine ever made is still accounted for today.
The President’s Forum offered a refreshing glimpse into the world of information assurance. Today, we often think of hackers trying to infiltrate secure computer networks, when in fact the “information assurance business” has been around for generations. When students enroll in an IA program, they know they are following in some important and groundbreaking footsteps.
The Innovation and Leadership Institute’s President’s Forum is a lecture series that brings distinguished speakers and panelists to campus to share their insights on innovation, entrepreneurship and leadership.
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