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Technology

Enigma: The Final Riddle

A team of amateur cryptologists tries to crack previously undecoded Nazi messages.

By Anne CasselmanAugust 1, 2006 5:00 AM

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The losing side in World War II just can't seem to catch a break. More than 60 years since the end of hostilities, a team of amateur cryptologists have set to work trying to crack three previously undecoded messages that were encrypted by the Nazis' famous Enigma machine—and they are making speedy progress.

The original cracking of the Enigma code was an early and crucial Allied triumph in WW II. The Germans' encryption machine used a system of mechanical rotors to garble messages in such a way that they could be decoded only by someone with the preset key and the knowledge of how to arrange the rotors. However, sleuths including Alan Turing and Donald Michie at the Bletchley Park facility in Britain eventually broke the code by isolating certain repeated phrases and guessing what they might be—the once-fashionable "Heil, Hitler," for instance. The Nazis eventually realized the game was up and changed their keys. They also added an extra rotor, thus increasing the level of encryption by an order of magnitude.

Now even these later messages are yielding their secrets. The M4 Project, led by German violinist Stefan Krah, uses the spare computing power of enthusiasts connected online to solve the encryptions. So far more than 2,100 computer terminals have signed up since January, and by March two of the secret Kriegsmarine messages had been decoded.

Not that the text is really all that interesting. "They're just routine messages about attacks on a convoy and so on," says Ralph Erskine, an amateur historian who published the undecoded intercepts in Cryptologia back in 1995. "It's more that modern technology has succeeded where Bletchley Park couldn't."

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