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Interview: Alan Turing Cryptography competition

The University of Manchester is holding another cryptography competition (as featured in this news post earlier this week). We spoke to Charles Walkden, one of the competition’s organisers, about the project.

Registration for the Alan Turing Cryptography Competition 2013 is open

Following on from the huge success that was their inaugural competition earlier this year, mathematicians from the University of Manchester have put together another Cryptography Competition in honour of father of modern everything, Alan Turing.

This time, the competition is open to teams of school children from all over the UK, and comprises a six-chapter story featuring Alice and Bob Mike and Ellie, who get “caught up in a cryptographic adventure”. Solving all the puzzles and cracking the codes faster than other people gets you on the leader board, and there are prizes for being near the top as well as extra prizes for randomly-selected teams who’ve solved everything. (You know that since it’s a maths department, their randomisation algorithms will be top-notch). It’s also possible to enter as a non-schoolchild, and check your answers on the site, although you won’t be eligible for prizes. The competition is aimed at UK school years 7-11 (age 11-16), although I can confirm it’s dead good fun for anyone interested in cryptography puzzles themed around exciting storylines.

More information

Alan Turing Cryptography Competition 2013

Manchester University press release

Via Nick Higham on Twitter.

A clue to deciphering Kryptos

Kryptos sculpture

Kryptos. Photo: Jim Sanborn

You may be aware of Kryptos, the sculpture covered in enciphered text and located outside CIA headquarters (and so not accessible to the general public). Three of the four messages on the sculpture have been decrypted, but the fourth remained obscured. Now the Telegraph reports that the sculptor, Jim Sanborn, who is apparently surprised that the puzzle is unsolved 22 years after the sculpture was created – has offered a clue “by divulging six of the 97 letters in that last phrase”:

 On the sculpture, they read NYPVTT. Decoded, they say BERLIN, he disclosed.

Solid state quantum processor demonstrated running Shor’s prime factoring algorithm

Researchers have designed and fabricated a quantum processor capable of factoring a composite number – 15 – into its constituent prime factors, 3 and 5.

According to a press release, this “represents a milestone on the road map to building a quantum computer capable of factoring much larger numbers, with significant implications for cryptography and cybersecurity”. The results are published in advance online access at Nature Physics.

The Cryptographer by Raw Color

The Cryptographer by Raw Color:

Behind closed doors: the Spanish intelligence service

When I was a student there was a door in the basement of the university library marked “This door must remained closed at all times”. I remember joking that perhaps no one could remember what was behind it, and of course they couldn’t check.

The BBC are reporting that GCHQ have received two Engima machines used in the Spanish civil war, in exchange for a German four rotor Naval Enigma machine recovered from Flensburg in May 1945, an Enigma rotor box and related documents.

The machines were apparently discovered “almost by chance, only a few years ago, in a secret room at the Spanish Ministry of Defence in Madrid.” The BBC quotes Felix Sanz, the director of Spain’s intelligence service, saying:

Nobody entered there because it was very secret, and one day somebody said ‘Well if it is so secret, perhaps there is something secret inside.’ They entered and saw a small office where all the encryption was produced during not only the civil war but in the years right afterwards.

It’s good to hear the Spanish intelligence service is taking secrecy so seriously, to almost Monty Python levels of silliness.

An interesting article, it also gives a hint at international co-operation. Mr Sanz is quoted saying:

In today’s world it is impossible to work alone. You need friends and allies. I knock at the door of the British intelligence – all three agencies – as many occasions as I need it and I always get a response. And I hope on the occasion where the British services knock at my door, when they leave my house they leave with a sense they have been helped also.

I find this last sentence interesting. It may be entirely coincidental, or a product of translation, but it doesn’t actually say that he helps the British intelligence services. This reminds me of a joke in the opening episode of the excellent Yes, Minister, in which the meeting of the Minister, Jim Hacker, and his civil servant Sir Humphrey, contains the following dialogue:

Bernard Woolley: “I believe you know each other.”
Sir Humphrey: “Yes, we did cross swords when the Minister gave me a grilling over the estimates in the Public Accounts Committee.”
Jim Hacker: “I wouldn’t say that.”
Sir Humphrey: “You came up with all of the questions I hoped nobody would ask.”
Jim Hacker: “Well, opposition is about asking awkward questions.”
Sir Humphrey: “And government is about not answering them.”
Jim Hacker: “Well, you answered all mine anyway.”
Sir Humphrey: “I’m glad you thought so, Minister.”