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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Simulating The Enigma’s Oddball Cousin

Even if you wouldn’t describe yourself as a history buff, you’re likely familiar with the Enigma machine from World War II. This early electromechanical encryption device was used extensively by Nazi Germany to confound Allied attempts to eavesdrop on their communications, and the incredible effort put in by cryptologists such as Alan Turing to crack the coded messages it created before the end of the War has been the inspiration for several books and movies. But did you know that there were actually several offshoots of the “standard” Enigma?

For their entry into the 2019 Hackaday Prize, [Arduino Enigma] is looking to shine a little light on one of these unusual variants, the Enigma Z30. This “Baby Enigma” was intended for situations where only numerical data needed to be encoded. Looking a bit like a mechanical calculator, it dropped the German QWERTZ keyboard, and instead had ten buttons and ten lights numbered 0 through 9. If all you needed to do was send off numerical codes, the Z30 was a (relatively) small and lightweight alternative for the full Enigma machine.

Creating an open source hardware simulator of the Z30 posses a rather unique challenge. While you can’t exactly order the standard Enigma from Digi-Key, there are at least enough surviving examples that they’ve been thoroughly documented. But nobody even knew the Z30 existed until 2004, and even then, it wasn’t until 2015 that a surviving unit was actually discovered in Stockholm.

Of course, [Arduino Enigma] does have some experience with such matters. By modifying the work that was already done for full-scale Enigma simulation on the Arduino, it only took a few hours to design a custom PCB to hold an Arduino Nano, ten buttons with matching LEDs, and of course the hardware necessary for the iconic rotors along the top.

The Z30 simulator looks like it will make a fantastic desk toy and a great way to help visualize how the full-scale Enigma machine worked. With parts for the first prototypes already on order, it shouldn’t be too long before we get our first good look at this very unique historical recreation.

Put An Arduino Enigma In Your Pocket

The German Enigma device has always been a fascinating gadget for hackers. We’ve seen various replicas and emulators created over the years, and it was recently even the subject of our weekly Hack Chat. But if you think about it it’s not really a surprise; the Enigma has the perfect blend of historical significance and engineering wizardry, with a healthy dash of mystery thrown in. Why do the bad guys always have the coolest toys?

If you’ve ever wanted your own little Enigma replica to explore, [Mark Culross] has put together a project which makes it easier than ever. In fact, it’s so straightforward that some of you reading this post will probably be able to put one together as soon as you’ve read this post from stuff you already have lying around in the parts bin. All you need is an Arduino Uno, an Adafruit 2.8″ TFT Touch Shield, and a penchant for World War II technology.

Thanks to the relatively high-resolution touch screen, [Mark] was able to develop a user interface for his Enigma that really gives you a feel for how the original machine worked. Obviously it’s considerably simplified from the real-world version, but using a stylus to tap the rotors you want to spin or the wires you want plugged in makes for a more immersive experience than many of the previous attempts we’ve seen. With a tap you’re even able to load historical machine configurations, such as how the Enigma aboard the submarine U-262 was configured when the Allies intercepted its encoded messages in 1942.

[Mark] says this project was always about developing the software, and he leaves the actual hardware implementation as an exercise for the user. Just to play around with the software it’s enough to hook up an Arduino and the touch screen, but we’d love to see somebody really take the idea and run with it. Add some batteries, a charging circuit, and put it all in a little wooden box for that authentic Enigma look. Can’t forget that iconic wrinkle finish paint, either.

Over the years, we’ve seen replica Enigma machines in all shapes and sizes. From ones you could mount on your wrist, to full size replicas using modern components. We’ve even seen one variation that you can print out on a couple of sheets of paper. The parade of recreations shows no sign of stopping, and we wouldn’t have it any other way.

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All Things Enigma Hack Chat

Join us Wednesday at noon Pacific time for the All Things Enigma Hack Chat!

This week’s Hack Chat is a bit of a departure for us because our host, Simon Jansen, has tackled so many interesting projects that it’s hard to settle on one topic. Simon is a multidisciplinary hacker whose interests run the gamut from building an ammo-can Apple ][ to a literal steampunk Rickroller. How about a Bender Brewer? Or a MAME in a TARDIS? Or perhaps making an old phone play music to restore a car by? Oh, and remember that awesome ASCII animation of Star Wars: Episode IV? That was Simon.

So, a little hard to choose a topic, but we asked Simon to talk a bit about his recent Enigma watches. He has managed to put an electronic emulation of the Enigma cypher machine from World War II into both a wristwatch and, more recently, a pocket watch. They’re both gorgeous builds that required a raft of skills to complete. We’ll start there and see where the conversation takes us!

Please join us for this Hack Chat, where we’ll discuss:

  • Where the fascination with Enigma came from;
  • Tools, techniques, and shop setup;
  • Melding multiple, disparate skill sets; and
  • What sorts of new projects might we see soon?

You are, of course, encouraged to add your own questions to the discussion. You can do that by leaving a comment on the All Things Enigma Hack Chat and we’ll put that in the queue for the Hack Chat discussion.

join-hack-chatOur Hack Chats are live community events on the Hackaday.io Hack Chat group messaging. This week we’ll be sitting down on Wednesday, February 27, at noon, Pacific time. If time zones have got you down, we have a handy time zone converter.

Click that speech bubble to the right, and you’ll be taken directly to the Hack Chat group on Hackaday.io. You don’t have to wait until Wednesday; join whenever you want and you can see what the community is talking about.

An Arduino Wrapped In An OLED Wrapped Inside An Enigma Pocket Watch

A pocket watch, tucked into a waistcoat pocket and trailing a long chain, is a retro-hip accessory. A pocket watch gutted of its mechanical innards and updated as a smart appliance might be a horological abomination, but would still be a cool hack. A pocket watch converted to a digital Enigma machine is in a class all by itself.

[Simon] admits that he has a thing for pocket timepieces, having a sizable collection of old and not-so-old watches, some that even serve for everyday carry. Trouble is, they eventually break, and qualified watchmakers are getting hard to come by. So refitting defunct watches has become a hobby for him, and this example is a doozy. It uses an Enigma emulator running on an Arduino, similar to one that he stuffed into a somewhat oversized wristwatch a few years ago. Fitting it into a pocket watch case required a bit of finagling, including a 0.5-mm thick main PCB that flexes a bit to fit the contours of the case. A small OLED screen peeks through the front bezel, which is done up in an attractive black crinkle finish with brass buttons for a nice retro look. There’s even an acid-etched brass badge on the front cover with his special logo, complete with a profile of the original Enigma rotors.

Very impressive workmanship, and we don’t even care that it doesn’t tell time. Need a little background on the original Enigma? [Steve Dufresne] did a great job going through the basics a while back.

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The Enigma Enigma: How The Enigma Machine Worked

To many, the Enigma machine is an enigma. But it’s really quite simple. The following is a step-by-step explanation of how it works, from the basics to the full machine.

Possibly the greatest dedicated cipher machine in human history the Enigma machine is a typewriter-sized machine, with keyboard included, that the Germans used to encrypt and decrypt messages during World War II. It’s also one of the machines that the Polish Cipher Bureau and those at Britain’s Bletchley Park figured out how to decipher, or break. Most recently the story of how it was broken was the topic of the movie The Imitation Game.

Let’s start with the basics.

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Decoding Enigma Using A Neural Network

[Sam Greydanus] created a neural network that can encode and decode messages just as Enigma did. For those who don’t know, the Enigma machine was most famously used by the Germans during World War II to encrypt and decrypt messages. Give the neural network some encrypted text, called the ciphertext, along with the three-letter key that was used to encrypt the text, and the network predicts what the original text, or plaintext, was with around 96-97% accuracy.

The type of neural network he used was a Long Short Term Memory (LSTM ) network, a type of Recurrent Neural Network (RNN) that we talked about in our article covering many of the different types of neural networks developed over the years. RNNs are Turing-complete, meaning they can approximate any function. [Sam] noticed the irony in this, namely that Alan Turing both came up with the concept of Turing-completeness as well as played a big part in breaking the Enigma used in World War II.

How did [Sam] do it?

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