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A few years ago a friend and I visited the National Cryptologic Museum outside Washington, DC. This was shortly after I'd finished Neal Stephenson's excellent Cryptonomicon, so I was ready to gorge myself on all things code-making and code-breaking.
Sadly, the museum had practically nothing from the last 10-20 years on display. Of course, those technologies are still in use today, so that wasn't surprising. This was: We got a personal tour from a former head of the NSA.
He was the museum director at the time, and there were few patrons there that Friday afternoon, so he accompanied us through half the building. Along with giving us detailed explanations about history's greatest cryptologic devices and techniques — such as the Engima machine during WWII — he also shared other interesting tales of espionage.
For instance, in 1946 Soviet school children presented the American Ambassador with a wooden replica of the U.S. Great Seal. The seal hung in his office for six years before anyone discovered the small microphone hidden inside the carving of the eagle.
Another story dealt with secrets escaping through a fireplace.1 But for me the museum's real highlights were the codes and ciphers and encryption. I mean, sometimes it's just fun to send things in code. For instance, look what I can do to the phrase "THIS IS AN ENCRYPTED MESSAGE" by implementing two little rules:
VGET OR UP IMDQYQSAF LITRUHI.
It's not just simple letter substitution, like you'd find in a cryptogram. As you can see, a message can quickly become indecipherable unless you: a) know the encryption method, b) have a code-cracking computer (or code-cracking brain), or c) happen to know the original message, allowing you to ignore the encrypted one completely. (By the way, if you don't want to reverse engineer my code, the answer's in the footnotes.)2 Sure, the Enigma machine and its progeny utilize far more complex algorithms, but I'd say it's pretty good for a couple minutes' work by a novice. I might even work it into a novel.
Anyway, if you're ever in the DC area and get the chance, I recommend checking out the National Cryptologic Museum. Or, if it sounds too geeky for you (or you have easily-bored children), I'd suggest the nearby International Spy Museum instead.
Oh, and remember...
CA RASA SU FQEPJ ZUOQ UWUKVOMA.
1 I don't remember all the details, but I think this happened at an embassy in China. National secrets were getting out, and they couldn't figure out how. Multiple searches over a period of months (or years) turned up no bugs of any kind. And then someone thought to try lighting a fire in the fireplace. Smoke quickly filled the room. Turns out the fireplace had been built specifically so any conversation would echo down through the grate and along a 100-foot underground tunnel to where a Chinese agent sat recording every word.
2 I switched each vowel to either the previous vowel or the next one, in alternating fashion and starting with the previous. I did the same for the consonants, but starting with the next. (Oh, and rather than deal with the Y as a vowel, I just left it as it was.)
This post is part of the Blogging from A to Z April Challenge, hosted by Alex J. Cavanaugh and seven others. Go check out the other participants!