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Save Bletchley Park!

Dec 05, 20083 mins
Data and Information SecuritySecurity

Bletchley Park is one of the world's great historical centers of cryptography and code breaking. Now a museum, Bletchley Park is facing economic crisis. It's worth remembering the work that went on there and the people who made it happen.

The United Kingdom’s Bletchley Park is perhaps the world’s best-known museum dedicated to cryptography and code breaking. You cannot read a serious book on the history of cryptography that doesn’t state that Bletchley Park was responsible for saving millions of lives during World War II (both allied and axis citizens and soldiers). Now Bletchley Park needs our help.

Bletchley Park, and its historic mansion and grounds, is located in present-day Milton Keynes, England. I had the good fortune to visit it several years ago. Built as a typical mansion estate in the 1870s, Bletchley Park was converted into an international code-breaking center on Aug. 15, 1939, in anticipation of the great effort needed during the war.

Enemy-encrypted communications and ciphers from around the world were brought to Bletchley Park for analysis and decrypting. While the visiting Americans concentrated on Japanese ciphers, the British worked on German ciphers, including communications from the state-of-the-art Enigma cipher machines. During the height of the war, some 10,000 highly intelligent people made Bletchley Park their working home away from home.

Cryptography, especially Japanese and German cryptography, was entering a phase that could no longer be tackled by the human intellect alone. Private encryption keys became longer and more complex. The early underpinnings of today’s modern electric computers were invented to tackle the complex rounds of equations needed to solve the cipher puzzles.

No historic figure was greater than Alan Turing. Turing was a complicated man with a head for mathematics, and he was singularly adept at solving the world’s most complex ciphers. Bletchley Park slowly began to make headway against the Germans’ Enigma ciphers, mostly because of human-induced mistakes into the overall encryption process (such as known repeated words and private keys). At some point, it was determined that it would take millions of calculations to solve the last puzzle step of the Enigma cipher, which at the time seemed impossible to most observers.

Turing envisioned and created a one-ton electromechanical computer known as a bombe. Multiple copies of these computers working over many hours could decipher cribbed Engima machine messages quickly enough that knowledge of the message remained useful. Bletchley Park soon held more than 200 Turing bombes.

There is conclusive evidence that battles fought with decrypted information led to huge allied victories, while the reverse is also true. In the few instances where the decrypted information was not relied upon or was not available (i.e., Hitler began to distrust the Enigma machines and ordered that they not be used in at least one major battle), the allies lost or had lesser victories.

The Allies’ code breaking saved lives on both sides, avoiding what could have been years more of war, with increasingly powerfully destructive weapons being deployed on both sides. The world owes Bletchley Park and Alan Turing gratitude that was never paid. Alan Turing ended his life in wrongful disgrace and Bletchley Park barely made it to museum status.

Bletchley Park has struggled for funds from the beginning, and it now faces an economic crisis as bad as any it has faced in the past. I invite you to read and learn about Bletchley Park. Visit it if you’re ever nearby in England. Buy something from the museum shop or consider donating to this worthwhile cause.

Bletchley Park is a tribute to the essence and ultimate triumph of the human spirit. When faced with supposedly insurmountable task and overwhelming odds, it stands as a permanent testament to the fact that we can work together to solve the impossible.


Roger A. Grimes is a contributing editor. Roger holds more than 40 computer certifications and has authored ten books on computer security. He has been fighting malware and malicious hackers since 1987, beginning with disassembling early DOS viruses. He specializes in protecting host computers from hackers and malware, and consults to companies from the Fortune 100 to small businesses. A frequent industry speaker and educator, Roger currently works for KnowBe4 as the Data-Driven Defense Evangelist and is the author of Cryptography Apocalypse.

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