Cryptography

The History and Mathematics of Codes and Code Breaking

Two Steps Forward and One Step Back

While German overconfidence in the strength of the enigma machine was partially responsible for the downfall of the cipher, many other reasons also influenced this ultimate collapse of German enciphering. I think that another main reason that the enigma was able to be broken lies in the fact that the enigma itself was simply a machine. The industrial mechanization of the early-mid 1900’s transitioned the world from simple methods to more efficient and technologically advanced means of production and thinking. These new technologies greatly impacted the way that war was waged; planes and radios and bombs all allowed for higher casualty rates while new cryptographic methods allowed for more methodical enciphering.

Even though this mechanization of enciphering sped up the process, the complexity of the machine was almost outweighed by the simplicity of its engineering. Because it was ‘just’ a machine, the enigma machine was able to be almost reverse engineered by Alan Turing. The industrial shift in society was not just reflected in product manufacturing, but also in the ways that people thought. In one of his many papers, Turing proposed the idea of an automated calculator. While this was well ahead of the technologies available to him at the time, this shows the logical thought process which was now being used to approach breaking ciphers.

In addition, new technologies made it easier for messages to be intercepted. From the telegraph to the radio to modern communication over the internet, lines of communication are becoming increasingly more accessible to spectators. By no means am I saying that technological advances have hindered enciphering, I just think that it is important to consider how the mechanization of society influenced the thought processes and methods of decoding in and the ease with which these encoded messages could be accessed by outside forces.

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3 Comments

  1. Andrew

    You make a good point that technological advances allowed for more methodical enciphering, but also for faster decryption. Do you think that the mechanization of society is a greater benefit to cryptanalysts or cryptographers?

    • Andrew

      Mechanization of society has allowed for more complex codes to be created by cryptographers, making the codes harder to break. However, it has also increased the ability of cryptanalysts to intercept the enciphered messages and to break them more easily. I believe that it is a constant competition, with either side never truly benefiting more in the long run, but I am interested to hear your opinion.

  2. Derek

    What I think is unusual about this argument is that, typically, the use of machines (and later computers) is seen as an advancement in encryption strength. The Enigma was seen to be unbreakable *because* it used a machine, but you're arguing that the fact that it depended on a machine was its weak point. I'm not sure I buy that, but it's an interesting argument.

    I wonder if this is an issue that depends on one's perspective--the technology of the Enigma machine seems pretty simple to us, here in the 21st century. But, at the time, it was completely novel.

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