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back to article WWII HERO PIGEON crypto message STUMPS GCHQ boffins

Brit spook central GCHQ can't decipher a coded message found on a pigeon that died trying to deliver the missive during WWII, and may have to turn to the public for help. The remains of the bird, found by David Martin in his chimney in Surrey, had a secret message attached - 27 handwritten blocks of code. The pigeon is reckoned …

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It's encrypted so we can't read it, sorreee

They would say that, wouldn't they.

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Re: It's encrypted so we can't read it, sorreee

get the local constabulary to demand GCHQ provide the encryption key, or face prosecution for failure to provide the encryption key when requested :D

The subsequent irony-based implosion should be a sight to behold 8)

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Happy

Are you sure . . .

It's not Sjt Stob ?

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Anonymous Coward

A stroke of insight from GCHQ:

''were designed only to be able to be read by the senders and the recipients''

so glad you've worked that out

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"'were designed only to be able to be read by the senders and the recipients''"

Yes, I heard that too, as well as the journo wailing something like "with all this technology and supercomputers you'd think ....."

If it's a one-time pad AND no context it's all but impossible

(Might be - remember wartime -rationing- "Put this bird in an oven gas mark 5")

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"Captain Blackadder did not eat this delicious plump-breasted pigeon"

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Anonymous Coward

More information, including message

at http://www.ciphermysteries.com/

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maybe ..... just maybe ......

Send three and fourpence, we're going to a dance ?

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Re: maybe ..... just maybe ......

Wasn't it three and sixpence...... I am getting old so maybe not!

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Re: maybe ..... just maybe ......

send reinforcements, we're going to advance...[chineese whispers]...send three and fourpence, we're going to a dance.

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My characters

I think that website got some of the characters wrong (which doesn't help)

here's my take on it

AOAKN HVPKD FNFJU YIDDC

RQXSR DJHFP GOVFN MIAPX

PABUZ WYYNP CMPNW HJRZH

NLXKG MEMKK ONOIB ARELQ

UAOTA RBQRH DJOFM TPZEH

LKXEH RGGHT JRZCQ FNKTQ

KLDTS GQIRU AOAKN

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Anonymous Coward

Re: My characters

Isn't that a SLP key for Windows 8?

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Re: My characters

Well, it doesn't appear to be ROT13.

Erm. In case you were wondering.

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Re: My characters

Just don't try reading it aloud...

CTHUL HUFTA GN!

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I wonder why the bird was a hero

As far as it was concerned it had been stuck in small box, transported away from its coop, manhandled and died tried to find its way home. I doubt it volunteered for the job or even knew it was even doing a job.

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Joke

Solved

I think it decodes as:

HITL ERRE ALLY DOES

ONLY HAVE ONEB ALLA

FTER ALL

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Facepalm

why dont they just find the other copy of the message in the archives?

or am I the only one who spotted that there is a second copy of the message sent from the pictures of the message?

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Practically unbreakable?

"would also make the encryption practically unbreakable."

If its a one time pad with a cipher code longer than the message then its absolutely unbreakable.

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FAIL

So...

A WW2 message is totally secure - yet lost memory sticks and laptops are not.... makes you think doesnt it.

Wont some one think of the morality of the the situation....

(Since thats the new buzz from MP's )

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Re: So...

"A WW2 message is totally secure - yet lost memory sticks and laptops are not.... makes you think doesnt it."

Not really. No one is stopping you using a one time pad system on your files. Unfortunately they're not very practical for long data unless you want to risk repeating the key and if you lose the key you're screwed and potential wide open.

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Anonymous Coward

I hope ..

.. someone has dated the pigeon so it's not just some elaborate hoax :)

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Re: I hope ..

Was he any good? Mmm, chimney pigeon jerky....

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Re: I hope ..

That was my first thought too. What a perfect wind-up...

"Here, look what I found up my chimney!"

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Coat

Perhaps it is just

jibberish?

coat, gone.

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If it says

"Send three & four pence were going to a dance"

It really means:

"Send re-inforcements were going to advance"

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Anonymous Coward

Anyone seen if there's a Mr Richard Dasterly still alive as he (and his dog Muttley) seemed to have experience with pigeons from what I can remember

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Anonymous Coward

Dastardly, Dick dastardly.

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This post has been deleted by its author

Anonymous Coward

drat, drat and triple drat!

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It tells of the secret whereabouts of:

The Fallen Madonna with the big boobies!

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Re: It tells of the secret whereabouts of:

LIST ENVE RYCA REFU LLYF ORIS HALLS AYZI SONL YONCE

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one time pad

So does anyone know if the British Army were using one-time pads for pigeon couriered messages at this time? Could save a lot of people a lot of time trying to break the code if it could be said for certain that it's unbreakable.

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Re: one time pad

The British army, backward as they were, had discovered radio by World War Two. It's unlikely to be from them.

More likely, a message from a spy who didn't have access to, or didn't dare to use, radio. Although whether the pigeon was sent by a British spy in occupied Europe, or by a German spy in Britain, is of course open to speculation.

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speckled jim

We definately did not eat this delicious plump breasted pigeon

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Re: speckled jim

Aaaah,

The Flanders pigeon murderer - baah! & how does the the deceased, I mean the defendant plead?

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Terminator

But...

...has the carcass been interred for the mandatory 5 years for not handing over the decryption keys?

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possible waste of time. I know for a fact that in WW2 there were several bomb runs done by the US that dropped pigeons all over the place with fake encrypted messages in order to make the enemy waste resources trying to decode the message. This very well could have been one of them. I surely hope they've taken that into account.

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Anonymous Coward

Yes - it wouldn't be the first time the Yanks provided something useless..

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Could it be Hungarian?

My hovercraft is full of eels

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Joke

Re: Could it be Hungarian?

My nipples exploded with delight to read that!

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Re: Could it be Hungarian?

I would like to return this beaver, eet ees scratched.....

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Anonymous Coward

Was the house owned by a retired army officer by the name of Blackadder (also known as the "Flanders pigeon murderer") .... we may be dealing with a serial killer

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Facepalm

serial killer

"we may be dealing with a serial killer"

Ahem. Cereal killer.

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Here's something I wrote about this for 2600

Perfect Encryption – old style!

We can all fire up a copy of Truecrypt to keep our files safe, and we think nothing of using SSL to protect a data exchange with a webserver, but that all needs computers to be useful. If you need to securely send information to a friend without the help of computers, you can get all old-school. Modern computers were invented to break codes, but you can send 100% uncrackable messages relatively quickly and easily by hand – and it is so satisfying to your geeky side, too.

‘But why would we bother? Isn’t this all just history now?’ The exact scheme I present is still believed to be very much in use by spies the world over, via ‘number stations’ (search youtube for some great, spooky examples) which at fixed times of the day will read a list of digits in disembodied voices over the airwaves to whoever is listening. And somewhere, somebody is listening, copying them down, and decoding these messages by hand. Emails leave trails, and indeed we know GMail ‘reads’ every word of your emails, but even though the world can hear the secure conversation, without knowing the encoding system, it is meaningless.

So, to encrypt and decrypt a message securely, we need to share a secret method with whoever we are messaging. Firstly we convert our alphanumeric message into numbers, then we use a separate list of numbers known only to whoever is sending and receiving the message to encode and decode it. To be mathematically unbreakable, each number list must only be used once, we call it a ‘one time pad’, literally a pad of digits in random order with only 2 identical copies, used one time only – burn after use!

Turning letters into numbers is the first stage. Of course you can use A=01, B=02, Z=26 etc., but it is not optimal. There is a clever system the ‘straddling checkerboard’ which can be much more efficient, by using the single digits for the most common 8 letters of a language (and of course each language is different!). In English, the common letters ‘AEINORST’ are assigned to single digits, but ‘AEINORST’ is not very memorable… ‘ESTONIA-R’ or my preferred ‘AT ONE SIR’ are much more memorable. I will use ‘AT ONE SIR’ below, and you will see how economical the ‘straddling checkerboard’ can be!

0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9

A T - O N E - S I R

2 B C D F G H J K L M

6 P Q U V W X Y Z . #

As you can see, AT ONE SIR makes up the top line, but we use the spaces (for 2 and 6) as shift characters for the less common letters (we then just fill in the leftovers alphabetically). The word ‘hacker’ becomes 25 0 21 27 5 9, ‘computer’ is 21 3 29 60 62 1 5 9. You don’t need the spaces except for readability of course, so ‘computer hacker’ encodes to ‘21329 60621 59250 21275 9’. This isn’t secure yet, but is already probably enough to get you past the casual observer. It is a fancy cipher, but a straight substitution cipher nonetheless. To decrypt it, you just make a checkerboard using ‘AT ONE SIR’ as the topline (so nice and easy to remember and recreate wherever you are) and wherever you see a 2 or 6, you know to shift the next digit to the appropriate line to decipher.

There is a ‘.’ Character (68) which you can use as a general purpose essential punctuation character, or use as a further shift character to a line of punctuation if you so desire. Frankly, if you’re doing this by hand on security grounds, you are not going to care about punctuation too much – the message is what is important! There is also a ‘#’ escape character for numbers. To make sure they are unambiguous, numeric digits are repeated three times over, so ‘2600’ enciphers as ‘69222 66600 00006 9’. As mentioned before, this is a cipher, not encrypted yet – that’s the bit where it gets uncrackable!

Now you need a one-time-pad to encrypt with (make sure your friend has the same pad!). All this is is a key – a list of random digits (for convenience usually grouped into five at a time). Do not trust your computer to give you truly random digits, computers use pseudorandom lists (which are entirely predictable if you know the ‘seed’) – if you want random, get a set of five 10-sided die from a games shop in different colours, throw them, and always write them down in the same colour order to prevent human bias! It will look something like…

51187-69890-33159-87236

25955-46669-93434-84219

41645-05561-76643-90072

56544-74326-49439-58703

…and be very boring to make! Make lots of these sheets into a pad with removable/disposable sheets so you never use the same one twice. This is important, as re-use dramatically reduces the security of the message – using a new sheet each time is mathematically 100% secure and unbreakable. You need a copy to encrypt with, and one to decrypt with, so only give copies of your pad to those who need it.

Now for the encryption stage – and we use (nice and simple) arithmetic to encrypt one digit at a time from our message. But it is important to know that we do not ‘carry’, so 7+7 becomes 4 (ie 7+7 = 14 – we just want the ‘4’), and 2-8 becomes 4 (as you can’t subtract 8 from 2, we use ‘12’ instead, so 12-8 = 4), or 3-7 becomes 5 (13-7). Practice this bit, it is important to get right!

Let’s encode ‘computer hacker’ using the key 51187-69890-33159-87236-25955 (first page of the pad above)

From above, ‘computer hacker’ is ‘21329 60621 59250 21275 90000’ (padded with zeroes), so we encrypt

Plain Text 21329 60621 59250 21275 90000

Key 51187-69890-33159-87236-25955 minus

----------------------------------------

Encrypted 70242 01831 26101 44049 75155

So this is the message we send to our friend – we can send it any which way, email, telephone, pigeon, or very publicly as with the number stations.

Your friend then adds the correct key back to the encrypted text, the exact opposite procedure

Encrypted 70242 01831 26101 44049 75155

Key 51187-69890-33159-87236-25955 plus

----------------------------------------

Plain Text 21329 60621 59250 21275 90000

And using ‘AT ONE SIR’ –

21/3/29/60/62/1/5/9/25/0/21/27/5/9

C /O/M /P /U /T/E/R/H /A/C /K /E/R

The encrypted text can be shouted from the treetops (or played on shortwave radio all around the world, of course!) – without the *right* key, it is not just meaningless, but instead contains *every* message. If an interceptor thinks the key is 90715-81423-97109-85037-30025, for instance -

Encrypted 70242 01831 26101 44049 75155

Key 90715-81423-97109-85037-30025 plus

----------------------------------------

Plain Text 60957 82254 13200 29076 05170

And using ‘AT ONE SIR’ –

60/9/5/7/8/22/5/4/1/3/20/0/29/0/7/60/5/1/7

P /R/E/S/I/D /E/N/T/O/B /A/M /A/S/P /E/T/S

Without a copy of your one time pad, it is absolutely unbreakable. Not just ‘difficult to break’ but actually unbreakable. Of course for ad-hoc secure communication you have to share the initial keys, and this is what SSL/HTTPS does – uses asymmetric encryption (difficult to break) to swap a one time key. This is why SSL is not actually secure, just very hard to break, and so as computers get more powerful, it becomes less secure. For absolute security, create and distribute pads manually and securely, and this is exactly how messages are securely sent to field operatives the world over!

Just for completeness, a number station will also read out the ID of the target operative so they will know to get ready to copy down a message meant for them, and may also read the first 5 digits of the page in the code pad to be used, so above they would start the message as ‘51187’, then use ‘69890’ onwards to encrypt the message. If you’re using this system a lot, you may choose to do likewise. Number stations will read out each group of 5 digits twice as shortwave radio drops out a lot – try searching youtube for ‘JK7e02o7xy4’ and you will hear an example where mid-stream someone tries to jam the signal. Or ‘ymhqL1MQwfE’ is a Chinese number station (again with allied jamming to try to spoil the message!). This may be ‘old school’, but is still very much alive and relevant to our world today!

If you can’t be bothered to get the dice and hand-make a pair of pads, http://www.fourmilab.ch/onetime/otpjs.html can make them for you – not as secure as making your own, but waaaaaaaaay better than reusing a key twice, and about as good as a computer can make it!

So imagine I had got this below key to you securely somehow…

47830-09292-31816-12605

45535-13930-73567-64251

62139-98344-10752-47795

56600-63437-94255-32654

Here’s a chance to try your brand new old-school decryption skills…

23455 08372 67345 24327 81135 97170 96728 57346 08995 60992 53970 41580 76525 24673

Cliff

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Re: Here's something I wrote about this for 2600

Wow, downvotes. I thought it was better written and more useful than most comments on the Reg, so Cam only posit that you disagree with the content enough to down vote but not enough to explain what you disagree with? Maybe it is length envy?

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Here's something I wrote about this for 2600

I'm a little surprised too. You invested time into making a post that was not only interesting to read but informative. Bravo! (Maybe some just took exception to the 2600 reference. Is alt.2600 still around, or is it all in the browser these days?)

"I thought it was better written and more useful than most comments on the Reg"

I would not disagree.

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Re: Here's something I wrote about this for 2600

Bless you. 2600 is still about in print edition if you don't mind paddling across to the USA

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Surely some mishtake - Ed

" . . . we can put it in the pot"?? Surely a bit gamey by now?

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Why would you insist on only using your first name when a simple google search gives the name of the gchq resident historian? Maybe it's another of those MI5 cryptology interview tests..

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"gives the name of the gchq resident historian?"

gives A name of the gchq resident historian

I'll just say "John Le Carre" and "workname"

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