GCHQ Review, Part 3 – FISH, a case study
So we’ve discussed GCHQ and broad politics and GCHQ and technology. Now, what about a case study? Following a link from Richard Aldrich’s Warwick University homepage, here’s a nice article on FISH, the project to break the German high-grade cypher network codenamed TUNNY. You may not be surprised to know that key links in the net were named OCTOPUS (Berlin to Army Group D in the Crimea and Caucasus) and SQUID (Berlin to Army Group South). Everyone always remembers the Enigma break, but FISH is historically important because it was the one for which Bletchley Park invented the COLOSSUS computers, and also because of the extremely sensitive nature of the traffic. The Lorenz cyphersystem was intended to provide secure automated teleprinter links between strategic-level headquarters – essentially, the German army group HQs, OKW and OKH, the U-boat command deployed to France, and key civilian proconsuls in occupied Europe. The article includes a sample decrypt – nothing less than AG South commander von Weichs’ strategic appreciation for the battle of Kursk, as sent to OKH, in its entirety.
Some key points, though. It was actually surprisingly late in the day that the full power of FISH became available – it wasn’t enough to build COLOSSUS, it was also necessary to get enough of them working to fully industrialise the exploit and break everything that was coming in. This was available in time for Normandy, but a major driver of the project must have been as a form of leverage on the Americans (and the Russians). The fate of the two Colossi that the reorganised postwar GCHQ saved from the parts dump is telling – one of them was used to demonstrate that a NSA project wouldn’t work.
Also, COLOSSUS represented a turning point in the nature of British cryptanalysis. It wasn’t just a question of automating an existing exploit; the computers were there to implement a qualitatively new attack on FISH, replacing an analytical method invented by Alan Turing and John Tiltman with a statistical method invented by William Tutte. Arguably, this lost something in terms of scientific elegance – “Turingismus” could work on an intercept of any length, Tutte’s Statistical Method required masses of data to crunch and machines to crunch it on any practical timescale. But that wasn’t the point. The original exploit relied on an common security breach to work – you began by looking for two messages of similar length that began with the same key-indicator group.
Typically, this happened if the message got corrupted by radio interference or the job was interrupted and the German operators were under pressure – the temptation was just to wind back the tape and restart, rather than set up the machine all over again. In mid-1943, though, the Germans patched the system so that the key indicator group was no longer required, being replaced by a codebook distributed by couriers. The statistical attack was now the only viable one, as it depended on the fundamental architecture of FISH. Only a new cypher machine would fix it.
The symbolic figure here is Tommy Flowers, the project chief engineer, a telecoms engineer borrowed from the Post Office research centre who later designed the first all-electronic telephone exchange. Max Newman, Alan Turing’s old tutor and the head of the FISH project, had shown Flowers a copy of On Computable Numbers, which Flowers read but didn’t understand – he was a hacker rather than a logician, after all. He was responsible for the shift from electromechanical technology to electronics at Bletchley, which set both Newman and Turing off towards their rival postwar stored-program computing projects.
Another key point from the book is the unity of cryptography and cryptanalysis, and the related tension between spreading good technology to allies and hoping to retain an advantage over them. Again, the fate of the machines is telling – not only did the FISH project run on, trying to break Soviet cypher networks set up using captured machines, but it seems that GCHQ encouraged some other countries to use the ex-German technology, in the knowledge that this would make their traffic very secure against everyone but the elect. Also, a major use of the surviving computers was to check British crypto material, specifically by evaluating the randomness of the keystreams involved, a task quite similar to the statistical attack on FISH.
Finally, FISH is exhibit A for the debate as to whether the whole thing has been worthwhile. What could have been achieved had the rest of the Colossi been released from the secret world, fanning out to the universities, like the scientists from Bletchley did themselves? Max Newman took racks of top-quality valves away from Bletchley when he moved to Manchester University, and used them in the very first stored-program, digital, Turing-complete computer; Alan Turing tried to do the same thing, but with a human asset, recruiting Tommy Flowers to work on the Pilot-ACE at NPL. (Flowers couldn’t make it – he had to fix the creaking UK telephone network first.) Instead, the machines were broken up and the very existence of the whole project concealed.
On the other hand, though, would either Newman or Turing have considered trying to implement their theories in hardware without the experience, to say nothing of the budget? The fact that Turing’s paper was incomprehensible to one of the most brilliant engineers of a brilliant generation doesn’t inspire confidence, and of course one of the divides that had to be crossed between Cambridge and GPO Research in Dollis Hill was one of class.