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7th October 2014 - Secret Communications, codes and ciphers  

Richard Phillips

Our new season was opened in fine style by President Ian Dewar with the help of a plentiful supply of freshly baked and delicious treacle scones, courtesy of club member Robert Kirkhope. 

Once normal business had been conducted our President introduced the speaker, Mr Richard Phillips, who talked about secret communications and some of their impact on history, concentrating on more recent times. Most examples necessarily were cases in which secrecy failed! Ranging through treason and revolution, spies, military and diplomatic cases, and civil liberties, failures of secrecy had sometimes been matters of life and death—even sometimes changing the course of world history—such as the execution of Admiral Yamamoto in WW2, and the Zimmerman Telegram in WW1. The methods used by ‘state security’ long ago were already well-developed, as the example of Mary, Queen of Scots’ last conspiracy showed. The telegraph, just like today’s e-mail was vulnerable to interception and encryption was, and remains, one of the most effective methods of protecting communications.

The 1920’s saw the development of more secure ciphers and machines which were in use for three quarters of a century. Careless use of these systems during WW2 allowed the Allies to be outstandingly successful in the code war though all sides had some successes.

Mr Phillips then looked briefly at another way to protect communications, hiding even the existence of a message by steganography and concealment containers. He showed some actual examples of these as used by major spies. Electronic computers were developed by and for the code-breakers but computers then began to need security themselves. Secure computer ciphers were developed for use by businesses and individuals. These can give protection from fraud and theft, spying and eavesdropping. They are widely used by commerce, political and human rights activists, journalists and anyone concerned about  protecting their privacy and security. We rely on them every time we use our plastic cards in an ATM or electronic point-of-sale till or buying on the Internet.  The USA’s extensive spying and communications interception and code-breaking capability can read much of the world’s electronic communications. For most people, the biggest threat to their privacy is their own government, several of which cooperate in USA communications monitoring.

Cryptography is a technology that is impossible to regulate. In many respects cryptography is like a pair of gloves. Most people use cryptography to prevent crime rather than to hide it just as most people wear gloves to protect their hands rather than to hide their fingerprints.

By ensuring the confidentiality and authenticity of electronic banking and Internet commerce, cryptography prevents theft and credit-card fraud. The vigorous application of cryptography may also improve national security, the encryption of communications for example and protect businesses from industrial espionage. Paradoxically we might create a safer society by promoting a technology that somewhat hampers law enforcement.  

A lively Q&A session followed and Mr Phillips was given a hearty vote of thanks by the members.

Our next meeting is on Tuesday 21st October when Mr John Bolton will speak on test flying and aeronautical engineering.

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