Reflections on “Top Secret: from ciphers to cyber security”

NB Team

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At NBU we always want to explore how the subject matter of our work relates to the world around us. Technology infiltrates every day in so many ways. From the way we communicate with one another, to the security of our most private information. This week, designer Stephanie Howard visited an exhibition at the Science Museum studying the evolution of encryption, from Enigma to emails.

While commuting into work one day, I saw a compelling exhibition poster: “Top Secret: from cyphers to cybersecurity”. The development of code systems and their functions intrigues me. So, I went along to find out more.

Breaking the code

Sponsored by the Government Communications HQ, the exhibition coincides with its 100th anniversary. It features unseen artefacts from the Science Museum Group and GCHQ’s historic collections. It paints a fascinating picture of the timeline of cyphers. The exhibition starts in the trenches of the First World War, with a variety of gadgets and devices used to conceal sensitive messages. It’s fascinating to see how these developed in the lead-up to World War Two.

The “Enigma machine” is particularly intriguing. It looks like a high-tech typewriter, but is best known as the greatest encryption device in history! Every single piece of information that went through the machine was encrypted to create a German Nazi code. To decipher the code you needed to know the settings of the machine.

There were a staggering 159,000,000 possible setting combinations. Alan Turing, who worked at the Government Code and Cipher School in Bletchley Park, cracked the Enigma code in 1941. Turing used various techniques and a machine called “The Bombe” to run mathematical calculations. These calculations enabled him to find a flaw in the Enigma system. He cracked the code. It was a defining moment of the War. The exhibition also showcased original intercepted German messages, which provided the Allies with vital information, giving them a huge advantage over their enemies.

The digital age

Then, as you journey through the exhibition you arrive in the modern “digital age”. This section explores our relationship with smart devices and the potential for data misuse. In this section of the exhibition, I also found a fascinating and scary exhibit by artist Christopher Baker. He wanted to make a statement about how much personal data we give away online. To illustrate this, he programmed 10 printer tickets to search Twitter for tweets containing grrr, meh, oooo, ewwww, and argh. Printed in real-time, the tweets mounted into a huge tangled mound of paper in front of me. It’s a stark reminder of just how much data we give away.

Key Takeaways

As I left the exhibition, I was left amazed at how far technology has advanced and how society has evolved from sharing hardly any personal information to giving it away – often freely. Fascinating.

The exhibition was an eye-opener and made me think about my online interactions and the data I share. I highly recommend checking it out for yourself. It’s free and on until February 2020. However, you’ll need to book. For more information click here.