November 16, 2007 9:06 AM PST

German man beats WWII Colossus code cracker

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In an ironic twist, a British team operating a World War II code-breaking computer has been beaten in a cipher-breaking contest by a German.

In the Cipher Challenge, a competition run by the U.K.'s National Museum of Computing on Thursday and Friday, the cipher-breaking computer Colossus had to decode encrypted radio communications intercepted from Paderborn in Germany. Competing against Colossus, which took 14 years to rebuild, were radio enthusiasts from across Europe, who had to beat the WWII code cracker using whatever computing means they had at their disposal.

The winner was Joachim Schüth, from Bonn, who completed the task using software he wrote himself.

"(Schüth) cracked the most difficult code yesterday," the museum's representative said Friday. "We're absolutely delighted. He used specially written software for the challenge. Colossus is still chugging away, as we got the signals late. Yesterday the atmospheric conditions were such that we couldn't get good signals."

Photos: A 'Cipher Challenge' for Colossus

The team operating Colossus managed to intercept the radio signals early on Friday, before loading the paper tape containing the encoded cipher stream. At the time of writing, the tape was still running, and the team expected to break the cipher later on Friday.

Schüth had "been much quicker and done a stunningly good job," said the museum's representative. Few technical details were available at the time of writing about the systems or software used to break the cipher, although the representative said Schüth had used the Ada programming language. Ada is used for military systems and was created by the U.S. Department of Defense in 1980.

Anthony Sale, the head of the team that rebuilt Colossus, said that the transmitted text had been encrypted using a Lorenz teleprinter cipher machine, the same type of machine which was used by Germany for high-level communications in WWII.

Tom Espiner of ZDNet UK reported from London.

See more CNET content tagged:
Ada, programming language, representative, Germany, radio

10 comments

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New application beats 67 year old cipher-breaking computer!!!!
WOW!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! This just in....person able to receive and read messages using e-mail faster than a group of telegram enthusiasts who built a 100 year old telegraph machine to compete. Currently awaiting the results of the carrier pigeon message versus cell phone call....
Posted by iknownothing1997 (3 comments )
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Classic!!
HAHA! Nice one!
Posted by thescale (31 comments )
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Ditto
Funny. Very Funny.
Posted by phillynets (73 comments )
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And how many kiloflops is Collosus running at?
Also, if I remember correctly Ada was designed to be a very rigidly typed language which was thought to allow for better collaboration and code maintenance and was not anything which was optimized for any particular application or purpose. So the comment in the article about the language being used by the military is not as relevant to the task at hand as some might assume.
Posted by inetdog (40 comments )
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Wait! Wait!
I'm a curmudgeon. And, I'm still working on my stone tablet. But before that I'll have to invent writing and before that language. Dang, this is going to take awhile.
Posted by spothannah (145 comments )
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You're missing the point
It was a challenge to recreate a historic event which included enthusiasts to participate. It wasn't a test to see if modern software could crack a cypher from a 60 year old machine.
Posted by wangbang (155 comments )
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The recreation itself is remarkable
Colossus was built by a group of very bright people using the best technology available at the time. To even re-create a 60-year old purpose-built codebreaking computer is nothing short of incredible. Many of the components used at the time haven't been made in 20 or 30 years. Just finding the PARTS to rebuild Colossus must have been a feat! To top it all off, they rebuilt it without the benefit of any circuit diagrams or mechanical drawings - they'd been destroyed along with the original computers to keep the secret of how they worked safe! (Read the pages at <a class="jive-link-external" href="http://www.tnmoc.org.uk/cipher3.htm" target="_newWindow">http://www.tnmoc.org.uk/cipher3.htm</a>)
This is certainly not to detract from Herr Schüth's accomplishment. The Enigma was not a secret decoder ring from a cereal box, it was the pinnacle of cipher technology at the time and a fascinating example of electromechanical design. It's still used to teach cipher techniques today.
Posted by nextcube (27 comments )
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Technology Improves - Idea is the same
The article mentions that a encrypted radio broadcast from Germany was sent - listened to in England (on 2nd day it was finally heard in England) then put onto paper tape fed into Colossus, then it started the process of the cipher wheel rotation to find the decrypting match.

Now the person in Germany did he do the same thing? Or did he get e-mailed the cipher and then ran it through the same basic decrypting method using his own brute force ADA program?

Did he have to build a radio receiving network - learn Morse code, transcribe it correctly, convert it to the 5 character groups, then go about the decrypting the Enigma transmission?

The person who wrote the article has no knowledge - or selectively left out a lot - and the headline writer (often two different people) of what is really involved in the signal intelligence wars of World War II - or maybe even the modern ones.

The achievement of rebuilding Colossus - and how it was built during WW II is really important. Building it would have been impossible except for the Czechs who actually stole the original from Germans - and ensured that the Germans through it was destroyed - and smuggled it to England so it could be taken apart, and Colossus built. Go to the Imperial War Museum in London - and you can see it (unless it was moved to Bletchly Park).

Tom Philo
<a class="jive-link-external" href="http://www.8thafhsoregon.com/" target="_newWindow">http://www.8thafhsoregon.com/</a>
Posted by taphilo-2003685639374287843630 (130 comments )
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A test, an experiment and some validation
Ok, this is a validatory experiment celebrating the ingenuity of a past event and also testing current technology.

What does it take to see it just as that and not attract contentious, curmadgeonish comments?
Posted by davidamerland (7 comments )
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That's too hard
It's more fun to claim that Bill Gates stole the code to use in DOS 1.0
Posted by Seaspray0 (9714 comments )
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