Password complexity in the 1940s

This content is 1 year old. I don't routinely update old blog posts as they are only intended to represent a view at a particular point in time. Please be warned that the information here may be out of date.

Over the last couple of weeks I’ve been fortunate enough to have two demonstrations of Enigma machines. For those who are not familiar with these marvelous mechanical computers, they were used to encrypt communications. Most notably by German forces during World War 2.

The first of the demonstrations was at Milton Keynes Geek Night, where PJ Evans (@MrPJEvans) gave an entertaining talk on the original Milton Keynes Geeks.

Then, earlier this week, I was at Bletchley Park for Node4’s Policing First event, which wrapped up with an Enigma demonstration from Phil Simons.

The two sessions were very different in their delivery. PJ’s used Raspberry Pi and web-based emulators, along with slides and a demonstration with a ball of wool. Phil was able to show us an actual Enigma machine. What struck me though was that the weakness that ultimately led to Bletchley Park cracking wartime German encryption codes. It wasn’t the encryption itself, but the way human operators used it.

Downfall

The Enigma machine was originally invented for encrypted communications in the financial services sector. By the time the German military was using it in World War 2, the encryption was very strong.

Despite having just 26 characters, each one was encoded an electrical signal which passed through three rotors from a set of five, changed daily, with different start positions and incrementing on each use, plus a plug board of ten electrical circuits that further increased the complexity.

There’s a good description of how the Enigma machine works on Brilliant. To cut a long story short, an Enigma machine can be set up in 158,962,555,217,826,360,000 ways. Brute force attacks are just not credible. Especially when the setup changes every day and each military network has a different encryption setup.

But there were humans involved:

  • Code books were needed so that, the sending and receiving stations set their machines up identically each day.
  • Young soldiers on the front line took short-cuts. Like re-using rotor start positions. They would spell out things like BER, PAR (for their home city, where they were stationed, girlfriend’s name, etc.).
  • Some networks issued guidance that all 26 letters needed to be used for a rotor start position each 26 days. This had unintended consequence that the desire for perceived variety meant the letter being used was predictable. It actually reduced the combinations as it couldn’t be one of the ones used in the previous 26 days.
  • Then there was the flaw that an Enigma machine’s algorithm was designed to take one letter and output another. Input of A would never result in output of A, for example.
  • And there were common phrases to look for in the messages to test possible encryption combinations – like WETTERBERICHT (weather report).

All of these clues helped the code-breakers at Bletchley Park narrow down the combinations. That gave them the head start they needed to use to try and brute force the encryption on a message.

Why is this relevant today?

By now, you’re probably thinking “that’s a great history lesson Mark, but why is it relevant today?”

Well, we have the same issues in modern IT security. We rely on people following policies and processes. And people look for shortcuts.

Take password complexity as an example. The UK National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) specifically advises against enforcing password complexity requirements. Users will work around the requirements with predictable outcomes, and that actually reduces security. Just like with the “use all 26 letters in 26 days” guidance I cited in my Enigma history lesson above.

And yet, only last month, I was advising a client whose CIO peers maintain that password complexity should be part of the approach.

One more thing… the Germans tried to crack Allied encryption too. They gave up after a while because it was difficult – they assumed if they couldn’t crack ours then we couldn’t crack theirs. But, whilst German command was distributed, the Allies set up what we would now call a “centre of excellence” in Bletchley Park. And that helped to bring together some of our greatest minds, along with several thousand support staff!

Postscript

After I started to write this post, I was multitasking on a Teams call. I should have concentrated on just one thing. Instead, went to open a DocuSign link from the company HR department and fell foul of a phishing simulation exercise. I’m normally pretty good at spotting these things but this time I was distracted. As a result, I clicked the (potentially credible) link without checking it. If you want an illustration of how fallible humans are, that’s one right there!

Featured image: author’s own.

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