Cryptography

The History and Mathematics of Codes and Code Breaking

Tag: Germans

The Logic of Codebreakers Beat Enigma

In the novel The Code Book, Singh argues that German overconfidence in the strength of Enigma was a primary reason why the Germans did not win the war. According to the blog post, “Never Become Lazy and False Genius During War”, the author, Naiksj, suggests that the laziness of the Germans and the way that they never change routine caused them the war. I agree with the author’s argument. The Germans would usually begin the day with a weather report and many of their messages would contain similar phrases. This allowed the codebreakers to notice different patterns in the code.

I believe that the Allied powers succeeded because of the logic of the codebreakers. The Germans used the Enigma machine in the same ways every day, and the codebreakers were logical enough to realize this. Any random person would most likely not be able to notice the patterns in the encoded messages. It takes a level of intelligence to figure out what different patterns can represent. When we were first asked what trait is most important on Top Hat the first time I said creativity. I recently changed my answer to logic because after reading more of the book, I decided that logical reasoning has to be involved in codebreaking. Creativity and luck are both important attributes to codebreaking; however, without logic, those two traits cannot do much. I believe that there needs to be a foundation of logic for a code to be broken.

Never Become Lazy and False Genius During War

Ethics and the Zimmermann Telegram

When Reverend Montgomery and Nigel de Gray broke part of the Zimmermann telegram and realized that German U-boats were about to unleash unrestricted warfare on civilian ships, they handed the telegram to Admiral Hall expecting him to pass it on the the Americans. Instead, Hall decided to keep the telegram secret and chose not to warn the Americans. As a result, when the Germans launched their attack, two ships were sunk, which could have been prevented had Hall sent the telegram. In addition, since the message had been completely deciphered at this time, Hall’s excuse of not wanting to send an incomplete message was no longer valid, and he did it for the sole reason of not wanting the Germans to know that their code was broken.

To consider whether this action was ethical or not, we can only consider the hypothetical outcome of the Germans finding out about the broken code and making their codes more secure. The benefit of this is that the two ships wouldn’t have been sunk. However, if the Germans had found a revolutionary encryption as a result of the broken code, it could potentially have cost many more lives while the Allies tried to decrypt messages. If the Germans had invented the Enigma machine in the first world war instead of the second, the Allies might not have broken the code in time to prevent Germany from winning, though the Enigma machine would most likely not have been as effective during WWII. In the case of all hypotheticals, however, it’s impossible to tell what could have happened and compare the costs and benefits to what did happen based on severity of consequences and probability of occurrence. We can only think about what might have happened with either relief or hope.

Allied Success and German Error

As we know from history, the Allies were successful in cracking the Axis’ encryption methods. A major part of this success, as Singh states, is German overconfidence. Another reason for their success was simply limited ability. The Enigma Machine, as impressive as it was, was restricted by possible plug board settings and scrambler combinations. The limitations of the machine combined with its extreme complexity and German laziness, led to repeated message keys, cillies, and stereotypical messages. As a result, the Allies were able to exploit cribs and this helped lead to the cracking of the Enigma. Allied success in with decryption, relied on German limitation. The Enigma was indeed limited, and this allowed the Allies the chance to break the code. German laziness also helped the Allies exploit the weaknesses in Enigma as they helped make it more predictable and pattern based.

Allied success did not only lie in German error. It also relied deeply on their own coding ability. The Allies had very strong encryption methods, such as the Typex, the SIGABA and the Navajo code talkers. Knowing that they had sound encryption methods allowed them to focus more on the decryption of Axis codes, rather than struggling to encrypt their own codes. Being able to focus their efforts on decryption played a major role on breaking the Enigma and other Axis coding methods. The difference between the Axis and the Allied forces was simply that the Allies had stronger encryption methods. In the end, Allied success was based off of the fact that the Allies won the coding war.

Too Much to Lose

Although German overconfidence played a major role in the success of Allied cryptanalysts, there were many other factors at play. One of the most significant reasons for Allied success was that the Allies had much more to lose. Initially, Marian Rejewski cracked Enigma because the threat of a German invasion of Poland was extremely high. Whereas other countries such as France had given up on breaking the Enigma, the Polish had too much to lose should they fail. Rejewski and his team spent a full year creating a book full of all of the potential keys for the Enigma. When it became clear that a German invasion of Poland was inevitable, Rejewski and his team handed over their work to the British, in hopes that they might be able to use it as well.

As the Germans added features to the Enigma to strengthen its encryption, such as additional plug board options, the Allies had to step up their game. Once again, the Allies had too much to lose for them not to invest the time and resources into cryptography. For each message the British failed to decipher in time, thousands of lives could be lost. The message could be about the location of the next air raid, or where the German troops were planning to move. Should the Allies have been able to know this information in advance, they might have been able to evacuate areas or adjust their strategies. Therefore, it was incredibly important to them that they be able to break Enigma. As a result, despite some reluctance on their commanding officer’s part, cryptologists at Bletchley Park were eventually given enough resources for Alan Turing to create his Turing Machine; a machine that was reliably able to crack the daily settings for Enigma.

When the stakes are higher, people work harder. German overconfidence certainly helped the Allies to be more successful with their cryptography, however, without the imminent German threat it is unlikely that people like Marian Rejewski and Alan Turing would have had the dedication or the resources, respectively, to break Enigma. Without cracking Enigma, the war could have turned out very differently.

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