BATTLESHIP ADMIRALS IN CYBER-SPACE

 

A MESSAGE FROM OUR FOUNDER AND CEO -

On December 7,1941 Japan attacked and destroyed most of the US Navy fleet based at Pearl Harbor. In many ways the bloody war in the pacific was a combat of codes. In late 1941, the American leadership was aware of the tensions with Japan because we were able to read most of the diplomatic and military communications.

However, the attack on Pearl Harbor was not made available in the Japanese coded traffic. The US Army broke into the highest level of Japanese diplomatic cypher - code named "PURPLE" - well before the attack on Pearl Harbor. Yet, PURPLE produced little of military value, as the Japanese Foreign Ministry was considered unreliable by the Tokyo political leadership.

The strike, devised and led by the brilliant Japanese Naval commander, Admiral Isoruko Yamamoto, crippled the American fleet, killing over 2,000 Americans, and sinking nine US Navy battleships.

In 1941, the battleship was considered to be the most powerful weapon of war. In the 1920s, US Navy "Battleship" Admirals were the most powerful force in America's military command. The Battleship admirals led an effort to disgrace airpower advocate General Billy Mitchell because he predicted that tiny airplanes could sink the mighty battleships. Mitchell knew of the coming science in flight and that aircraft would soon dominate. The entrenched naval command would have nothing of this new idea and hounded Mitchell out of the service in 1926.

On December 7, 1941, in the span of a few short minutes, Admiral Yamamoto demonstrated that Mitchell was right. Fortunately, Yamamoto missed the US Navy aircraft carriers which were out on exercises that day. Yet, the devastating attack propelled America into World War II.

In the end, the war of the codes combined with US Naval airpower and paid off. US Navy code breakers in Hawaii, led by LCDR Joseph J. Rochefort, were able to decypher the Japanese Naval communications, revealing the time and location of the next major attack. Yamamoto planned his next attack to be against the tiny island of Midway and with it - the final defeat of the US Navy.

This time, armed with the Japanese plans, the US Navy ambushed and defeated Yamamoto, sinking the 4 aircraft carriers that conducted the strike on Pearl Harbor. Japan was unable to recover from this defeat at sea and remained on the defense for the remainder of the war.

In fact, it was the US code breaking that eventually led to the death of Admiral Yamamoto himself. In 1943 American code breakers discovered the Japanese leader would be flying into a base in the Solomon Islands, putting his aircraft in range of US fighter planes. On April 18, 1943 US Army Air Force P-38 Lightnings intercepted Yamamoto and shot him down.

In many ways the US policy and techniques pioneered by Army and Navy codebreakers in the early 1940s have remained with us to this day. The efforts of the early code breakers led to the formation of the National Security Agency in 1952, a secretive intelligence unit that has grown into a multi-billion dollar surveillance giant.

Codes and code breaking - "Cryptography" - also remained under the classification as a weapon of war until only recently. Even today, many inside the US government consider encryption to be under the laws of police and war powers. It is this outmoded view that led to the proposals of mandatory back-doors and restrictions on its use by the general public.

The problem is that encryption is both language and math, hardly items that can be rendered tame by legal efforts in a democratic society.

Encryption is a language that can only be understood by those with the key. In 1918, Choctaw warriors from Oklahoma joined American forces during World War One in Europe and became the first code talkers, using their native language to send cyphered signals for the military. This feat was later repeated by the Navaho code talkers of World War II in the pacific.

Encryption is also math. The Japanese Purple, German Enigma and most of today's advanced coding systems are all based on math. While many techniques use massive random numbers and gigantic prime factors, it is still the basic addition and subtraction of binary based math that is the central heart to cryptography.

Thus, regulating cryptography, once a secret considered on par with nuclear weapons, is now impossible. In order to legislate encryption one will have to ban books, restrict math, censor history, disable free speech and cripple our society into classes defined by the knowledge of science.

However, that does not stop those who fear encryption from trying. Today we in the cryptographic industry are confronted by "Battleship" Admirals who feel they can dominate cyber-space with ancient ideas of bans, censorship, and restrictions. Our community, the security industry of our nation, can and does help law enforcement without being served with court ordered warrants.

Yet, it is this adversarial role that we have been forced into by endless propaganda and long lines of anxious prosecuting attorneys who want publicity. Much like General Billy Mitchell - we have been demonized by scare mongers entrenched in a system that is now obsolete.

No one can turn back the march of time or the advancement of technology. We do not have to break our most powerful defense to bust criminals. Encryption is indivisible. If you split it up into compartments, create back-door holes, you merely pull it to pieces and destroy its greatest asset - its security.

Our modern state is weaved from such a complex and interdependent fabric that it offers a target highly sensitive to a sudden and overwhelming cyber strike. One of the most vulnerable targets would be the U.S. power grid. Encryption alone does not guarantee America's security, but I believe it best exploits the nation's greatest asset — our technical skill. I am not alone in this assessment since major power companies in the U.S. are now scrambling to secure themselves using the most powerful encryption available. The move toward using powerful encryption to protect our most important assets is both logical and prudent.

Still, the Battleship admirals clamor for us to go back to the past. So what will happen when we have a "Digital Pearl Harbor"? Will these leaders apologize to the millions left without power, water, food or money when hackers defeat or circumvent weak encryption invoked by law? Which member of Congress or law enforcement is going to stand up and take the blame when the lights go out?

 

CHARLES R. SMITH

CEO FOUNDER OF SOFTWAR INC.

 


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