Human error will always hamper secrecy, says science writer

9 Jun 2009

Using Germany’s WWII Enigma code machine as an example, human error will always destroy secrecy, Guardian science columnist and BAFTA-winning documentary maker Simon Singh told

Singh, who is in Dublin tomorrow to present to the IET Irish Signals and Systems Conference at UCD, will bring along a genuine World War II Enigma code machine to discuss his theory.

The British scientist, who is a former Tomorrow’s World producer, was the director of the BAFTA award-winning documentary Fermat’s Last Theorem about the world’s most notorious mathematical problem. The film was also nominated for an Emmy award.

He is also author of The Code Book and presenter of the Channel 4 series The Science of Secrecy, which told stories of how a cipher sealed the fate of Mary Queen of Scots and the coded Zimmerman Telegram that change the course of World War I.

As author of the book Big Bang, Singh also criticised the Katie Melua song Nine Million Bicycles, and got her to go on BBC Radio 4 and sing his version which proposes a distance of 13.7 billion light years to the edge of the known universe, instead of her 12 billion version.

Singh is currently at the heart of a fiery debate on free speech and libel. An article he wrote in the Guardian on the usefulness of chiropractors for ailments such as ear infections and infant colic resulted in him being sued for libel by the British Chiropractic Association.

More than 8,000 people, including celebrities Dara O’Briain, Ricky Gervais and Stephen Fry, have signed a petition, and 6,000 people on Facebook have joined the ‘For Simon Singh and Free Speech – Against the BCA Libel Claim’ group that is protesting against how the UK’s notoriously tough libel laws are affecting free and open debate around science.

On the subject of IT security in a world where 80pc of email is now spam and people can blast instant messages on Twitter and Facebook, I put it to Singh that protecting and keeping information secret is now more challenging than ever.

“I believe we are currently in the golden age of cryptography because the algorithms are incredibly strong. If anything, codemakers have a bigger lead than ever before.

“But the implementation of new systems is often the weak point, and the fact that there’s more data more badly encrypted out there than ever before.

“People also are actively putting information into the public arena. That’s one thing. It can be a proactive decision, but also sometimes a careless decision. Problems range from badly encrypting information to people accidently leaving memory sticks lying around or in a pocket of a jacket they’ve sent to the dry cleaner’s.

“If we are serious about encryption and protecting data and going to all kinds of lengths to protect data, the problem is the human errors that creep into what you’re doing.”

According to Singh, the best illustration of this is from World War II, when Germany equipped its army and navy with the legendary Enigma encryption machine. One machine was captured by the Royal Navy and this enabled cryptologists at Bletchley Park to decipher the code and contribute to the Allies’ overall victory in the war, but at other times the Germans undermined their own codes by using Enigma inappropriately.

“Enigma was actually a good piece of equipment for its time. Had it been used properly, it would have been much harder to break. One of the things that the Allies tried to do to break the Enigma code was perform traffic analysis, effectively counting the number of messages sent and when they were sent.

“To combat this, the Germans tried to send the same number of messages at the same time every day, so this would have included a lot of dummy messages.

“Occasionally, these dummy messages would be the same but repeated 50 to 100 times. But this was easy to decode if there was a break in the routine. That was how Enigma was cracked. Human error undermined it.

“The machine itself was secure, but it was flawed implementation that broke security.”

Singh’s fascination with cryptography began when he worked on Tomorrow’s World between 1991 and 1996. He kept encountering interesting stories about encryption, but because explaining it didn’t easily lend itself to the visual medium, he just stored the stories up.

“When I left the BBC, I opened the file and began writing books on what I believed was a fascinating story. Ciphers and codes have been around as long as the written word; the Romans and the Egyptians used ciphers to carry military plans and keep personal diaries. In the Middle Ages, encryption was used to carry recipes for gunpowder.”

Singh said that cryptography in the 21st century is as potent as it was 2,000 years ago. “But it has its dangers. If you live in an oppressive regime and you’re found sending a message that appears to be scrambled, you can be arrested. That’s why fields such as steganography are emerging.”

Steganography is the spy’s art of hiding a message in the background of a photograph to relay a message. If the picture arrived by post or was published in a newspaper, an object like a vase of flowers in the background or an item of clothing could be the signal for an attack of some kind.

“In a modern context, a digital photograph could be altered to have the brightness up one pixel and down a point in the next pixel so that the pixel brightnesses as you read across the top row are odd or even – you have binary code. That’s a way of writing and sending a message that nobody except the intended recipient will spot,” Singh explained.

By John Kennedy

Pictured: scientist and BAFTA-winning documentary maker Simon Singh

Picture courtesy of Steve Trigg