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Friday, November 23, 2012

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Coo

It's not every day that one sees a headline like "Code Found on Pigeon Baffles British Cryptographers"--at least, outside of "The Onion."  Just when I was deserately searching for something to write about, too.

A group of codebreakers at Britain's Government Communications Headquarters have declared themselves thoroughly stymied--or as I like to think the Brits would say, "Right-snoggered, Mate!"--by a coded message found tied to the leg of carrier-pigeon--or EX-carrier pigeon, as Monty Python might put it--in the chimney of a 17th-century home in the village of Bletchingley--like that's a real place:  "[P]igeon specialists"--apparently there are such things--"said they believed it may have been flying home from British units in France at around the time of the D-Day Normandy landings in 1944."

The cryptographers speculate the code may be based on a "onetime pad," which, as readers of Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon know, is effectively unbreakable: The method calls for a random series of letter-substitutions that can be decoded only with a pad belonging to both the sender and recipient.  Once the message is transmitted, the pad is destroyed.

Considering that the message went awry nearly 70 years ago, and that the good-guys won World War II even without whatever bit of intelligence was to have been conveyed by our feathered friend, I guess the message probably couldn't have been TOO important.  But I think this whole incident teaches us something about the wisdom of entrusting important deliveries to things apt to get stuck in chimneys--just something to think about as you write those letters to Santa.

Alternatively, maybe someone's just screwing with a bunch of British cryptographers.

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