Secret Scotland

If it's secret, and in Scotland…

Dolly bird Barbie was a spy who even had her own little Enigma machine

I chanced across this little gem about Barbie and her typewriter, and thought was something that was probably little known, and worth sharing with those who like secrets.

Barbie was first given a purely mechanical typewriter, but was later upgraded to an electronic version manufactured in Slovenia (by Methano) and supplied by Mattel. But the E-118 (preceded by the E-115, E-116, and E-117) had a secret, a built-in cryptographic capability which allowed secret messages to be encrypted and decrypted, and used an alphabetic substitution cipher.

All used a simple daisy wheel printer made of plastic parts, with two solenoids and a motor. A small PCB contained the electronic at the centre of the unit, with a microcontroller bonded directly to the PCB to save money. Although this was redesigned over time, the crypto feature seems to be common to all.

There were actually 4 built-in cipher modes, each activated by entering a special key sequence on the keyboard, explained only in the original documentation. Access was by pressing SHIFT and LOCK in combination with specific keys. While keyboard layouts vary between countries, and therefore the characters on the keys, the physical position or location of the keys on the keyboard which needed to be pressed did not change.

In use, the user simply activates one of the 4 secret modes, types in their message, and the encrypted message is printed on the paper.

To decode the message, the recipient activates the corresponding decoding mode, and when they type in the encrypted message as received, the plain text message should be printed on the paper.

The encryption method is a simple character substitution, where a given character is always replaced by the same substitute character from a table. The 4 modes are provided through the inclusion of 4 different substitution tables within the typewriter’s programming.

A number of different versions of these typewriters were made, so it could be sold worldwide.  English, German and French keyboard layouts are known. It seems that text written on the French version cannot be decoded on a British version suggestion different versions are not compatible. Perhaps they use different sets of substitution tables.

For more details and examples of this intriguing toy, see the entry at:

Crypto Museum

Below is an E-117 (found on Pinterest, with no attribution).

Barbie E-117 encrypted typewriter

Barbie E-117 encrypted typewriter

My apologies to those who appreciate the difference between encoding and encryption.

While I try to make the distinction, when working from source material that uses the terms interchangeably, it simply takes too long to revise everything and correct it while keeping things consistent.

At its simplest:

  • encoding only requires an algorithm, and is typically done to allow data transmission
  • encryption requires an algorithm and a key, and is done for privacy

While both may make a message unreadable, the former can be recovered as the method will be public, so there is no secrecy.

The latter can only be recovered by the holder of the key.

The difference probably doesn’t matter to anyone not involved, and can be traced back to things like references to the codebreakers of places such as Bletchley Park, when such distinctions were not made.

March 1, 2017 Posted by | Civilian, Cold War, World War II | , , , , | Leave a comment

Change is a slow process

Big SeSco S

Changes hinted at (or perhaps more accurately, quietly announced) in January have been ambling along slowly.

Good job I don’t have a boss looking over my shoulder.

Forum

Some interesting items sprang up, and I’ve found myself drawn in a little more than I’d like to be at the moment, and spent more time than intended. On the other hand, quite a lot of that was down to new info regarding the Measured Miles found on the Clyde, so I can’t really complain, or beat myself up for lack of discipline.

Poking around the code for the ‘new’ up to date forum showed that someone has written some integration for it, which links it with the same code used for our Wiki. While I have yet to look at the detail, this might prove useful, but I can’t tell until I’ve installed and run it, to see how it works, as the documentation is sparse to say the least. Maybe next month.

Wiki

laptop work

Quite a few new pages/subjects have been added (no, I didn’t count, deliberately), and let me clear out a lot of ‘pending’ tabs I have had open in Firefox for ages. Firefox’s ability to handle ridiculous numbers of tabs without hysterics unfortunately leads to bad habit, but I’ve managed to go from a daily total varying between 300 and 400 tabs, to a maximum of around 50. Maybe the headaches will stop as well, since I don’t have to remember up to 400 tab contents!

As per last month, I looked at some of the links that are automatically formed in the Wiki, based on the location of subjects and dependent on processing their lat/lon, or Grid Reference. Some still work, but others are broken, as the sites they point to have change the format of their search urls. It’s not a huge problem, but it can get a little bit complicated, and I need to brush up my dormant

skills.

More serious is the change to Google Maps and their API. The good news is that they kindly detect and convert out old API coding and serve a ‘new’ version which still places the map on out page. The bad news is that there’s no guarantee this will always be on offer. And since we have some really old version 1 code on a page, we know that is dead. The good news is that there is ‘new’ map option available to add to the Wiki, but so far I have not been able to look closely enough at it to see if installing it will kill the existing maps – a problem, since each page’s map is unique, and the point/lines are written for each page.

This Blog

So far, I’ve been able to maintain my own discipline and keep the Blog fresh with at least one new daily post.

I’m not short of material, but sometimes finding the time to write the post is not easy.

I’ve also come across some issues (in the news) that I’d like to raise, but past experience shows these turn into so-called ‘Long Reads’ and I don’t think I can afford the time to do the research needed to do them justice. Maybe later.

And I have one other blog idea I’m trying to get underway, not suited for including here, which I still haven’t finalised.

Suggestions?

Still interested in anything anyone who is reading or referring to any part of the site has to say or suggest.

The ‘Comments area’ below is not going away.

March 1, 2017 Posted by | Site News | , , , , | Leave a comment

   

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