Tuesday, May 16, 2023

Crypto Tour – Discover Real Crypto Websites

Click to start tour
What is Crypto? These days, you won’t even get the correct answer from Google. Instead, you get hundreds of hits on "crypto" currency websites, top ranking on Google because they promise you to get rich in the shortest time, or lose your money just as fast. Crypto, the short for cryptography, is none of that. 
In fact, the term crypto, used since the 1840s, has nothing to do with so-called "crypto" currencies. No worries, we will lead you to real crypto websites. Spoiler for those who want to get rich. No coins, no profits, we’re talking non-commercial websites about cryptography, how it works, the equipment and history. The good news is that you don't need to be a geek or math wizard, you will discover all kinds of fascinating stuff and won't lose a dime. History is there to share.

Since Google ranks virtual currencies higher than science, the Crypto Tour, a chain of links, will guide you through a series of selected websites,  created by cryptography experts, enthusiasts and historians from around the world. They bring you the real story of crypto. All participating websites have the same Crypto Tour icon (in varying colors or size) on their main page. Whichever website you visit, you can always click that icon to discover other crypto websites. To get started, click the above icon to visit our website, find and click the Crypto Tour icon and discover other excellent crypto websites.

For those Gen Z people who mistakenly think crypto is a currency, cryptography is the study and implementation of techniques to hide information or to protect it from being read. The information can be written text, electronic signals or digital information. It’s counterpart is cryptanalysis or crypto-analysis, the study and analysis of existing ciphers and crypto algorithms, in order to assess their quality, to find weaknesses or to find a way to reverse the encryption process without having the key, i.e. codebreaking (see brief history).

For those who want to earn good money and love math, know that cryptologists are in high demand. There are many job opportunities in today's digital world. You don't have to apply for a job at NSA, GCHQ, SSSI or your federal agency, but if you're smart enough, why not?
Or you could check out the video below and take your chance with some "crypto" coins (no pun intended ;-)

Thursday, February 23, 2023

Computers and Cryptography

The development of computers is closely intertwined with the history of cryptography, and vice versa. The mechanization of cryptography during the early 20th century slowly began to exceed the skills of cryptanalysts to break such encryption. The only way to break these ciphers was to also mechanize the breaking of ciphers. Colossus, the first programmable digital computer, was developed exactly for that purpose during World War II.

Until the early 1950s, computers were only used by government agencies for codebreaking, the military, weapons development and research. In 1951, the UNIVAC was the first commercially produced digital computer, but computers were mainly used by universities and large corporations like IBM and General Electric. Programming those large mainframe computers was a complex task.

Making Computers Accessible 

This changed when Professors John Kemeny and Tom Kurtz from Dartmouth research university  got the, I quote, crazy idea to develop a simple language to make programming easier and more accessible for non-technical undergraduate students.

However, they first had to buy a computer. Since there was no budget for computers, they bought a Librascope LGP-30 computer, an optical tape reader and a typewriter console for a total of $37,040 and booked it under furniture. That's $383,434 in present 2023.

Librascope LGP-30 with console typewriter. Source: Bob Fleischer - Wikipedia.

John Kemeny wrote the compiler to translated the new language into machine language for the LGP-30. This new language was named BASIC (Beginners' All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code) and made programming easier than ever.

Moreover, to make BASIC accessible to as many students as possible, they implemented time sharing  (sharing computing resource) on the LGP-30 computer to enable several students to independently work on their own console typewriter, remotely and simultaneous, processed on one single computer. This idea resulted in students lining up  to learn programming with BASIC, the computer language that remains popular to this day.

Crypto Going Mainstream

For many people, BASIC was their first programming language when small computers became commercially available in the late 1970s. This was the era where people who bought a computer usually also learned to program. They were often called nerds, because… who on earth needs a computer? Yeah, sure.

The rapidly growing number of computers and users also spurred the development of crypto algorithms by others than government and the few commercial firms that build crypto equipment. This fueled the everlasting competition between codemakers and codebreakers, and between state and citizens. This evolution also democratized cryptography and digital privacy.

All this started when two professors decide to make programming easier. More on the development of BASIC in the below video.

Birth of BASIC - Dartmouth College

More on Cryptography and Computers

On our website you find a brief history of cryptography and learn more about the Colossus computer, used by the British codebreaker during the Second World War to break the German Lorenz SZ40/42 machine, used for their high-level communications.

More on the LGP-30 computer at the Computer Museum Stuttgart and many detailed photos at the Time-Line Computer Archive. Also read Fifty Years of BASIC on Time.

Wednesday, December 21, 2022

Mission: Impossible - Cyber Security

Cyber security is an ever-evolving battle that we can never win. The reason is simple. Virtually no one actually knows what is running on their computer at this very moment. And yes, that's a bit scary.

Gary Ruddell created a series of videos that are both entertaining and professionally made. His website provides insight in cyber security and includes articles, a newsletter and also workshops for those who are interested in a career in cyber. Here's one of his videos.

Secure communications is indeed quite complex. Luckily, there are professional firms that provide secure solutions. At least, that is what we expect them to do. However, the former Swiss firm Crypto AG had a hidden agenda, as I explained in previous posts. Garry also created a perfect introduction video about the shady adventures of that firm.
You can visit Garry's website at www.garyruddell.com to learn more about cyber security. Make sure to visit his Youtube channel to discover more videos. Highly recommended.

Sunday, November 06, 2022

RN Communications Branch Museum/Library

HMS Mercury
Royal Navy Signals School

Sometimes you need serendipity to discover a fascinating website. I researched the TSEC/KL-7 cipher machine for long and was able to find the few declassified documents on this 1950s cryptologic gem that served until the early 1980s.

Initially named AFSAM-7, the KL-7 was developed for all US armed forces, but the US Navy developed its own fully compatible version with a few more options, named AFSAM-47, later designated KL-47.

Unfortunately, little is known about the British use of the KL-7. However, NATO documents linked patrol boats, minesweepers and submarines to the KL-7 instead of the naval KL-47. This is how the search engine keywords KL-7 and Navy, and a bit of serendipity, lead me to the RN Communications Branch Museum/Library.

This fascinating website is a private initiative of Ken Sutton, who served from 1966 until 1998 in the Royal Navy (RN) and retired as Warrant Officer 1st Class. He then served as civilian Communications Training Design Officer until 2012.

RN Comms Museum History  

The museum/library has existed since the late 1800s when the RN Signal School was based in the RN Barracks Portsmouth, now HMS Nelson base. In 1941 the Signal School and its library moved to the HMS Mercury shore establishment near Petersfield, where the library was maintained and a small museum was established.

HMS Mercury closed in 1993 and moved into HMS Collingwood shore establishment in Fareham. Unfortunately, no space was allocated for the Mercury museum and library, leaving all exhibits kept in cupboards and drawers. The Royal Navy Signals history comprises several branches and specific expertises, of which the communicators were the workforce, and still are today.

The badges of Tactical, Women's Royal Naval Service and Telegraphist/Sparkers

The first badge (crossed flags) is the Tactical badge, the branch that dealt with all comms by flashing light, semaphore, flag hoists, with expertise in the manoeuvering of ships. This side of the branch was transferred to the Seaman Specialist branch circa 2004. 

The second badge (blue gold wings) is the Telegraphist/Sparkers badge of Women's Royal Naval Service (WRNS) Communicators from the era that WRNS served mainly in shore communications centres worldwide. Few were morse trained and most trained in message handling. They also were trained to encipher and decipher messages using various systems. Notably, they also made up the majority of GC&CS personnel in Bletchely Park during WWII. They eventually integrated in the RN and now serve aboard navy vessels, informally still known by the nickname "wrens".

The third badge (gold wings) is the Telegraphist/Sparkers badge of the branch that dealt with all radio communications.  Today, this branch is referred to as the Communication and Information Systems branch (CIS) due to the amount of computerised systems used in the communications world.

Preserving History   

When Ken Sutton retired in 2012, he volunteered to set it all up again.  The museum is not an official RN museum, even though it resides in a naval establishment.  He created the website to make the museum's exhibits and documents available to all RN Communicators past and present without having to travel long distances to visit it.

His small website turned into a major project when Jeff Dykes, a former Warrant Officer Radio Supervisor, requested Ken to incorporate his huge online archive about all things Navy into the RN Comms Museum website. That's where I found the first account from Royal Navy personnel on the KL-7 and its use.

The website has a huge collection of technical information about naval communications, transmitters and receivers, technical drawings and photos, but also about how the Royal Navy is organised, from information on submarine warfare to burial at sea. You name it, and there's a page about it. Now, back to the KL-7...

The RN Comms Cryptography page describes in detail the KL-7 and its early use in the Royal Navy. More about the KL-7 and how it was used at the Cold War Cryptography page.

Do visit the RN Communications Branch Museum/Library and make sure to check out the Sparkers and Snippets menus, each of which has several sub-menus with many more pages, hundreds! Use their Search Page to find specific items in the vast collection.

Highly recommended!

Tuesday, August 02, 2022

Joseph Helmich – The KL-7 for Cash Spy Case

Joseph George Helmich

The John Walker spy case from 1985 was covered extensively by the press. In 1968 he sold the technical details of the KL-47 crypto machine (Navy version of the KL-7) to the Soviets and provided them more than 17 years the secret key sheets of the machine, causing tremendous damage to U.S. Naval communications. But he was not the first.

Joseph Helmich already compromised the KL-7 five years earlier but his case is hardly known to the public. Both Walker and Helmich were only caught after 17 years, but textbook spy candidat Helmich could have been caught much sooner.

Career in Signals 

Joseph Helmich (°1937) entered the U.S. Army in 1954. After Signal School training he served two years in Korea. In 1958 he received a Top Secret clearance at the Signal Training Center in Fort Gordon.

Later that year he served at the U.S. Communications Zone Europe in Orleans, France and from 1959 until 1963 in the 275th Signal Company in Paris. Meanwhile, he was appointed Warrant Officer, now had Top Secret clearance and worked as custodian for classified cryptologic documents.

While in Paris, Helmich got into financial trouble and wrote some bad checks. To avoid court-martial and solve his debts he contacted the Soviet embassy and offered to sell classified information. He met with a Soviet agent, working undercover at the Soviet Trade Mission in Paris and received instructions in espionage tradecraft. He provided the Soviets with the repair manuals of the KL-7, the secret internal wiring of its rotor and the secret daily key lists.

Keys for Cash 

Helmich moved in 1964 to Fort Bragg and served in a signal battalion. He made several trips to Paris to meet his handler, a GRU Soviet Military Intelligence officer. Each time, he provided key lists copies from the KL-7, at that time the most used crypto machine by U.S. troops in Vietnam and by many of their allies. He was paid at least $131,000 but he was going to be sent to Vietnam soon.

Meanwhile, Helmich owned his own home and two jaguar cars, quite unusual for a 28 year old of his rank. This triggered an investigation and he explained that his wealth came from an investment in France and gambling. Both claims proved unverifiable and he refused a polygraph examination. As a result, his Vietnam assignment with the Army Security Agency (ASA), a unit responsible for communications security, was turned down. Instead, he was sent to a supply unit in Vietnam.

After returning from Vietnam, his security clearance was revoked due to serious financial problems. He decided to quite the Army, rather than being discharged, and got work as a car sales man. It seemed as they would never discover his betrayal…

Connecting the Dots

In 1974 the FBI received information from a well-placed source that someone with the codename “Greenwood” worked for the GRU. The unidentified person had served in France, had experience in radio interception, served from late 1964 a year in Vietnam and then quit the Army, although still ten years to go. This was the start of FBI counterintelligence operation "Hookshot" to identify the spy. They informed U.S Army Intelligence and Security Command INSCOM to investigate who could fit that profile.

INSCOM reported that Joseph Helmich perfectly fit that profile and the FBI started an extensive investigation with surveillance, all in utmost secrecy to avoid alarming Helmich. His telephone records, jobs, earnings and bank accounts were checked and they discovered several inconsistencies. He had earned $3,000 in three months ($18,000 in present 2022), way more than his wage as a car salesman. He was kept under surveillance for six years.

In 1980 it seemed that Helmich’s life went from poor to rich and back to poor. He now lived near Fort Gordon with its SIGINT training facility and the Charleston Navy nuclear submarine base, two sensitive locations. The FBI suspected that he might still have contact with Soviet intelligence.

New Contact and Arrest

From early on, the Soviets had deposited each of his payments in Switzerland. End of May 1980 Helmich traveled to Canada and visited the Soviet embassy in Ottawa to inquire about getting some of that money. He was told to go to Paris. The FBI however was on his tail and aware of the Soviet embassy visit. Helmich, at the time unemployed, returned to the United States but did not return to his home, had sold all his furniture and his home was for sale. 

It was now time for the FBI to bring in Helmich and debrief him, including polygraph tests. He was interrogated extensively in the following year and was also caught trying to deceit the FBI. Helmich was arrested in July 1981 and indicted on four counts of espionage.

Two months later he eventually pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit espionage by giving the Russians a maintenance manual, technical details and key lists for the KL-7 crypto system. The government dropped three other counts under a plea agreement. He was sentenced to life imprisonment. In 2002, Joseph Helmich died in prison at the age of 65.

Clear Signs and Warnings 

This was a textbook spy case that could have been avoided. People with security clearance who can't handle money are always a risk because money is an important incentive to espionage. If such person nevertheless gets affluent, has no provable explanation and refuses a polygraph, then all bells should ring. You can either help to solve their problems or prevent access to classified information.

It's only due to a combination of circumstances that Helmich was thoroughly investigated. The source who tipped off the FBI, the criteria only fitted Helmich, records showed both wealth and debts, and his refusal of a polygraph. FBI counterintelligence then put its teeth in the case and had the patience to wait until he made a mistake. He did, and was caught. In the end, he paid dearly for having trivial financial problems and then solving them the wrong way.

Some newspapers reported that the FBI "stumbled" on Helmich when a Soviet KGB agent they were trailing met with Helmich to discuss a payment, "according to an American intelligence source". This was obviously a cover story to protect the well-placed source inside Soviet intelligence. Disclosing that information could have enabled Soviet counterintelligence to identify the mole.

Intelligence Documents

More Information on the KL-7

  • KL-7 in Service full history of the KL-7, its use by the U.S military, CIA, FBI, NATO and other allies, including many declassified documents.
  • TSEC/KL-7 detailed page with all technical details. 
 New York Times Press Releases

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