Inside The Top Secret Doughnut: A Visit To GCHQ

There’s an old joke that the world’s greatest secret agent was Beethoven. Didn’t know Beethoven was a secret agent? That’s why he was the greatest one! While most people have some idea about the CIA, MI6, and the GRU, agencies like the NRO and GCHQ keep a much lower profile. GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters) is the United Kingdom’s electronic listening center housed in a 180 meter round doughnut. From there they listen to… well… everything. They are also responsible for codebreaking and can trace their origin back to Bletchley Park as well as back to the Great War. So what’s inside the Doughnut? National Geographic managed to get a tour of GCHQ and if you have any interest in spies, radios, cybersecurity, or codebreaking, it is worth having a look at it.

Of course, only about half of the GCHQ’s employees work in the Doughnut. Others are scattered about the UK and — probably — some in other parts of the world, too. According to the article, GCHQ had a hand in foiling 19 terrorist attacks, arresting at least two sex offenders, and prevented about £1.5 billion of tax evasion.

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Cryptographic LCDs Use The Magic Of XOR

Digital security is always a moving target, with no one device or system every being truly secure. Whether its cryptographic systems being compromised, software being hacked, or baked-in hardware vulnerabilities, it seems there is always a hole to be found. [Max Justicz] has a taste for such topics, and decided to explore the possibility of creating a secure communications device using a pair of LCDs.

In a traditional communications system, when a message is decrypted and the plaintext is displayed on screen, there’s a possibility that any other software running could capture the screen or memory state, and thus capture the secret data. To get around this, [Max]’s device uses a concept called visual cryptography. Two separate, independent systems with their own LCD each display a particular pattern. It is only when the two displays are combined together with the right filters that the message can be viewed by the user, thanks to the visual XOR effect generated by the polarized nature of LCDs.

The device as shown, working with both transparent OLEDs and traditional LCDs, is merely a proof of concept. [Max] envisions a device wherein each display is independently sourced, such that even if one is compromised, it doesn’t have the full message, and thus can’t compromise the system. [Max] also muses about the problem of side-channel attacks, and other factors to consider when trying to build a truly secure system.

We love a good discussion of cryptography and security around here; [John McMaster]’s talk on crypto ignition keys was a particular hit at Supercon last year. Video after the break.

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$100k To Crack A Bitcoin Wallet

When Bitcoin peaked a few years ago, with single coins reaching around $18,000 USD, heartbreaking stories began circulating about people who had tens or hundreds of coins they mined in the early days when coins were worth just a few dollars or cents. Since then, they owners of these coins had lost the private key, or simply thrown away the drive or computer the coins were on. It’s next to impossible to recover this key in most situations, but for the right amount of money it can sometimes be done.

About 20 years ago, [Mike] was working as a cryptography expert and developed a number of interesting algorithms for breaking various forms of encryption, one of which involved .zip files with poor entropy. A Bitcoin owner stumbled across the paper that [Mike] wrote and realized that it could be a method for recovering his lost key from 2016. [Mike] said it would take a GPU farm and $100,000 USD, but when the owner paid the seemingly enormous price [Mike] was able to recover around $300,000 worth of Bitcoin.

While this might not be financially feasible for you if you have a USB stick with a single coin on it you mined as a curiosity in 2010, the cryptography that is discussed in the blog entry is the real story here. We never know where the solutions to our problems are going to come from, like a random .zip file exploitation from two decades ago, but we can be sure that in the future it will be much easier to crack these keys.

Thanks to [Darmstatium] for the tip!

Project Rubicon: The NSA Secretly Sold Flawed Encryption For Decades

There have been a few moments in the past few years, when a conspiracy theory is suddenly demonstrated to be based in fact. Once upon a time, it was an absurd suggestion that the NSA had data taps in AT&T buildings across the country. Just like Snowden’s revelations confirmed those conspiracy theories, a news in February confirmed some theories about Crypto AG, a Swiss cryptography vendor.

The whole story reads like a cold-war era spy thriller, and like many of those novels, it all starts with World War II. As a result of a family investment, Boris Hagelin found himself at the helm of Aktiebolaget Cryptograph, later renamed to Crypto AG (1952), a Swedish company that built and sold cipher machines that competed with the famous Enigma machine. At the start of the war, Hagelin decided that Sweden was not the place to be, and moved to the United States. This was a fortuitous move, as it allowed Hagelin to market his company’s C-38 cipher machine to the US military. That device was designated the M-209 by the army, and became the standard in-the-field encryption machine.

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An Arduino And An Enigma All Rolled Into One

This hacker has been wanting to design an Enigma machine simulator for a while, but didn’t take the leap until they realized there was a compact Arduino with a surplus of I/O.

The logs go through all sort of variations on the machine. Everything from a plug board variation similar to the original to a 16 segment LED tester are covered. In one of the posts you can even see it decode a real U-Boat message. 

The earlier revisions are housed in very attractive laser cut cases but the latest designs employ an even more elegant casing solution. The simulator uses 16 segment displays and momentary push buttons for the keys. At its core is a 2560 Pro mini. The write-up contains a lot of detail about the code behind the Enigma and is interesting to read.  Interestingly, the PCB was designed in Fritzing, the EDA software many love to hate.

We love the craftsmanship and attention going into this project and can see it turning into a very appealing kit as it goes through its design cycles.

John McMaster Explains Crypto Ignition Phone Keys And How To Reproduce Them

When you’re a nation state, secure communications are key to protecting your sovereignty and keeping your best laid plans under wraps. For the USA, this requirement led to the development of a series of secure telephony networks over the years. John McMaster found himself interested in investigating the workings of the STU-III secure telephone, and set out to replicate the secure keys used with this system.

An encryption key in a very physical, real sense, the Crypto Igntion Key was used with the STU-III to secure phone calls across many US government operations. The key contains a 64KB EEPROM that holds the cryptographic data.

[John] had a particular affinity for the STU-III for its method of encrypting phone calls. A physical device known as a Crypto Ignition Key had to be inserted into the telephone, and turned with a satisfying clunk to enable encryption. This physical key contains digital encryption keys that, in combination with those in the telephone, are used to encrypt the call. The tactile interface gives very clear feedback to the user about securing the communication channel. Wishing to learn more, John began to research the system further and attempted to source some hardware to tinker with.

As John explains in his Hackaday Superconference talk embeded below, he was able to source a civilian-model STU-III handset but the keys proved difficult to find. As carriers of encryption keys, it’s likely that most were destroyed as per security protocol when reaching their expiry date. However, after laying his hands on a broken key, he was able to create a CAD model and produce a mechanically compatible prototype that would fit in the slot and turn correctly.

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Espionage On Display As GCHQ Hosts A Temporary Exhibit

At the top of the British electronic intelligence agency is the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), a very public entity whose circular building can easily be found by any inquisitive soul prepared to drive just off the A40 in Cheltenham which is about two hours west of London. But due to the nature of its work it is also one of the most secretive of UK agencies, from which very little public information is released. With over a century of history behind it and with some truly groundbreaking inventions under its belt it is rumoured to maintain a clandestine technology museum that would rewrite a few history books and no doubt fascinate the Hackaday readership.

Perhaps the most famous of all its secrets was the wartime Colossus, the first all-electronic stored program digital computer, which took an unauthorised book in the 1970s to bring to public attention. Otherwise its historical artifacts have been tantalisingly out-of-reach, hinted at but never shown.

A temporary exhibition at the Science Museum in London then should be a must-visit for anyone with an interest in clandestine technology. Top Secret: From ciphers to cyber security occupies the basement gallery, and includes among other exhibits a fascinating selection of artifacts from the Government agency. On a trip to London I met up with a friend, and we went along to take a look.

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