Amateur cryptographer beats Colossus system

Homegrown software and PC solve enciphered messages in 46 seconds, German says

An amateur cryptographer and ham radio operator in Germany thrashed the reconstructed Colossus system in a code-cracking challenge that replicated the pioneering digital computer's work in helping the British to break encrypted messages during World War II, reports out of Germany and the U.K. said today.

According to the BBC, the team at Bletchley Park -- the estate northwest of London where British code-breakers worked to decipher German radio traffic during the war -- cracked the first of several messages around 1:15 p.m. local time today.

But before the Colossus reconstruction team could put its vacuum tubes to work, Joachim Schueth of Bonn, Germany, submitted the deciphered text of the test messages to the U.K.'s National Museum of Computing. The museum, which is located at Bletchley Park in the town of Milton Keynes, was running the cipher challenge to mark the end of the 14-year project to re-create one of the original 10 Colossus machines.

As part of the challenge, a team at the Heinz Nixdorf MuseumsForum -- a computer museum and conference center in Paderborn, Germany -- encrypted the test messages using one of the actual Lorenz teletype-connected systems that enciphered high-level traffic between German high command and other headquarters during the war. The enciphered messages were then transmitted by radio, as messages were by the German military in the 1940s.

Schueth, who also is a programmer, said on his Web site that he had written a suite of software to process the radio signals, then solve the starting positions of the 12 rotors, or enciphering wheels, on the Lorenz machine.

He claimed that it took his PC -- a notebook armed with a 1.4-GHz processor and running the NetBSD operating system -- just 46 seconds to find the settings of all 12 rotors. "Putting Colossus in a competition with modern computers may be a bit unfair," he wrote. "Colossus was an ingenious construction and a landmark in the history of computing. But technology has very much evolved since."

Colossus, meanwhile, had to play catch-up, as radio reception problems on Thursday delayed its receipt of the enciphered messages. The story posted on the BBC's Web site said that the text wasn't fed into the massive machine -- Colossus was the size of a small truck and boasted about 2,400 vacuum tubes -- until 8:15 a.m. Friday. A pair of blown tubes, which are called "valves" in Britain, also delayed the decryption efforts.

The National Museum of Computing hoped that the cipher challenge and the ensuing publicity would spark donations to the museum, which said that it needs to raise about US$12.3 million to maintain its collection of historical computers.

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Gregg Keizer

Gregg Keizer

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