Enigma - AFNIC's Heritage Hall gains piece of WWII crypto history

  • Published
  • By Melisse Noud and Tyson Joye
  • Air Force Network Integration Center
You'd never guess by looking at it, but the small, brown and black box now displayed in the Air Force Network Integration Center's Ludwig Heritage Hall played a significant part in the Allies' victory of World War II.

The Enigma machine, on loan indefinitely to AFNIC from the National Cryptologic Museum, is an encryption device developed in the 1920's. Its original intention was for use in the banking industry of the time, allowing institutions a means of secure communications with each other. However, this concept never caught on in the banking industry. The German Military, on the other hand, saw the Enigma as an undecipherable machine and used it to encrypt and decrypt communications during WWII.

The machine used approximately 380-bit encryption (about 10114 possible combinations) which is more than what is used in many e-commerce websites or even Department of Defense Common Access Cards. Depending on the machine, three to five electro-mechanical rotors substituted cipher letters for plain text letters.

Perhaps one of the most significant aspects of the Enigma is not its security, but its vulnerabilities. The Germans were confident they were sending undecipherable messages. However, Allies regularly broke the Germans' code, intercepted, and deciphered their messages, which provided a critical advantage in the Allies' victory.

Today, as the nation's reliance on cyberspace continues to grow, information assurance is more important than ever.

"The Enigma is truly a valuable piece of history for our collection," said Brad Ashley, AFNIC's Technical Director. "Not only is it a link to our heritage, but it also serves as a reminder of the importance of mission assurance. Information security and communications vulnerabilities can win or lose a war."

"The Germans' Enigma code was cracked in part due to human carelessness," said Warren Neary, AFNIC Historian. "Allied mathematicians were able to solve the puzzle because some German military personnel did not follow security measures, allowing Allies access to Enigmas and classified documents."

The device on display at AFNIC is a four-rotor Enigma typically used on German U-boats during WWII, and is a welcome piece to the Heritage Hall's extensive collection of military communications and information artifacts.

"The Enigma and other historical artifacts provide us inspiration and motivation in our role as the Air Force's technical center of excellence for network integration," said Col. Rizwan "Riz" Ali, AFNIC Commander. "With today's dynamic threats, rapidly evolving technology and growing dependence on cyberspace, the Air Force relies on AFNIC's innovation and expertise more than ever to ensure our warfighters have a secure, reliable cyber realm to operate in. We're proud to add the Enigma to our collection to help us honor the past as we look to the future."

Scott personnel interested in viewing the Enigma machine or receiving a tour of AFNIC's Ludwig Heritage Hall should contact the AFNIC History Office at 229-6110.