Encryption is a fascinating field. Since WWII, when the Allies ability to break secret messages enciphered by the German Enigma Machines contributed substantially to the Allied war-winning intel, it has captured the minds of mathematicians and scientists alike. I’ve used several myself, based on:
- musical codes (i.e., Morse Code Music)
- Fibonacci Numbers and the Golden String
Up until January, 2006, there were still three uncracked Nazi Enigma messages intercepted in the North Atlantic in 1942. had no idea this was still uncracked. The M4 Project (named for the four rotor Enigma M4 used to encipher the messages), and later Enigma at Home, was created to use the power of home computers to break these last messages. The encrypted messages are:
Not unlike Fermat’s Last Theorem which was only just solved after 358 years of trying by Andrew Wiles of Princeton University in 1993.
You can donate your spare PC processing power to dozens of cool volunteer computing projects simply by downloading some software. Enigma@home is the one that called me.
Enigma@home is based on the M4 Project, an effort spearheaded by German-born violinist and encryption enthusiast Stefan Krah. The M4 Project was designed to break three original messages generated by a famed electro-mechanical Enigma machine and intercepted in the North Atlantic in 1942. (The project gets its name from the four-rotor Enigma M4 machine presumed to be used by the Germans for enciphering the signals during wartime.) The project’s method for cracking the ciphers is described as “a mixture of brute force and a hill climbing algorithm.”
Enigma@home provides access to the M4 Project using BOINC software for volunteer and grid computing. The project, which started in January of 2006, succeeded in breaking the first two messages within the first couple of months. Enigma@home is still working on message No. 3. As for why it’s such a tough one, Krah says there could be several reasons:
1. It could be a so-called Offizier message, part of which is doubly encrypted.
2. The message was badly intercepted and some letters are missing.
3. There are some messages that require the algorithm to be applied many times. This is pretty much what we are doing right now.
As for what sparked Krah’s interest in breaking ciphers, he says that in 2005 he started solving the challenge messages of Simon Singh’s Cipher Challenge – long after the actual challenge was over.
“The Enigma message in Singh’s challenge is in many ways relatively easy to break and subsequently I improved the algorithm so that real world messages could be broken. In summer of 2005, a publication by Geoff Sullivan and Frode Weierud helped to refine the algorithm further.(More about decoding)