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.

Advertisements

March 1, 2017 - Posted by | Civilian, Cold War, World War II | , , , ,

No comments yet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: