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Cracking the Code
December 1, 2014   
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If you Google the phrase “success by Polish cryptologists,” the names of only three people are listed on the first page: Marian Rejewski, Jerzy Różycki and HenrykZygalski. Today, 80 years after the three Polish mathematicians cracked the code used by the Nazi Enigma machine, cryptology is vastly more advanced and plays a key role in everyday life.

by Jan F. Wróbel

The achievements of the three mathematicians testify to the Polish scientific contribution to the defeat of the Third Reich. But today Poland needs new efforts if it is not to be dependent on friendly foreign intelligence services. That’s where the National Cryptology Center comes in.

The center is a Defense Ministry agency set up in June 2013. The man behind the project is Gen. Krzysztof Bondaryk, former head of the Internal Security Agency. He has convinced the National Center for Research and Development to invest zl.120 million in his idea. Bondaryk rejects comparisons with the United States’ controversial National Security Agency because the Polish agency is not intended to spy on individuals or monitor the internet. The main task of the cryptology center, which will employ 300 scientists and cryptologists, will be to provide the Polish armed forces with technologies needed for the secure exchange of information.

Cryptology is everywhere present in the modern world. It plays a key role, for example, when someone withdraws money from an ATM. To allow this everyday operation to take place, IT experts had to ensure that a PIN number cannot be decrypted. In commercial applications, the emphasis on scientific research is not as strong as is the case with the armed forces—banks do not need to invent their own cryptographic systems.

When an encryption system is needed, there are two paths to choose from, says Stefan Dziembowski, a professor of mathematics at the University of Warsaw. “You can either use an already known code, where the whole algorithm is public and you only need to implement it, or invent your own code.”

Dziembowski’s Cryptology and Data Security Group at the university’s Faculty of Mathematics regularly takes part in prestigious cryptographic conferences, for example Eurocrypt. The group’s sponsors include corporations like Intel, through its Intel Security Curriculum Initiative.

Cryptologists focus not only on cracking and improving ciphers, but also on other security threats. If breaking a code consumes too much time and money, potential offenders look for methods to bypass security systems rather than crack them. It is easier, for instance, to clone an ATM card than to decipher a PIN number. To make things worse, if the two cards are indistinguishable it is usually difficult to prove which transactions have been carried out by a bank’s client and which by a fraudster. Scientists at the Wrocław University of Technology have undertaken to solve this problem. “A cloned card allows you to carry out a transaction, but using a cloned or uncloned card leaves hard mathematical evidence of which card has been used,” says Prof. MirosławKutyłowski of the Wrocław University of Technology.

Cryptographic systems could also be used to help persuade witnesses to testify in court trials. “Many people are afraid to step forward as witnesses,” Kutyłowski says. The reason is that they want to remain anonymous. Elderly people, for example, may consider testifying against local hooligans to be too risky. Scientists at the Wrocław University of Technology are trying to develop a simple system that would guarantee full anonymity to witnesses. They would remain anonymous even to defense lawyers. Witnesses would enter their testimony and data without the need to appear at a trial, and their identity would remain unknown.

The private sector uses standardized systems for the sake of convenience. But this is not always possible for the government sector. And the armed forces need their own security systems: by importing technology you risk being attacked by the exporter’s country.

Prof. Jerzy Gawinecki, dean of the Faculty of Cybernetics at the Military University of Technology (WAT), says one reason why the Gulf War of 1991 ended quickly was that half a year earlier the Americans had—via French firms—sent computers and printers to Iraq in which they planted spy devices. The Iraqis used the equipment in their command centers hidden 15 meters under the desert sands. At one point, the computers activated transmitters that made it possible for the Americans to effectively bomb their targets. This is why the armed forces need to invent their own security systems, though this can be achieved by working with universities. There is ongoing competition to recruit talented students—global corporations, banks and other big institutions that need gifted cryptologists are present in Poland and try to attract the best by offering them big money and jobs abroad.

Gawinecki says that Military University of Technology graduates can be found in many countries including the United States, Britain and Japan. The list of those snatched up by private firms in Poland is even longer. These firms look for such candidates when they are still university students, for example at employment fairs. The skills of Polish information science students are regularly proven at international competitions such as the International Olympiad in Informatics, the TopCoder competition, and the ACM International Collegiate Programming Contest, which the University of Warsaw won twice—in 2003 and 2007.

The Military University of Technology is of key importance to the Polish cryptology program. Apart from indispensable theoretical knowledge, cryptologists have to know how encryption works for the specific machines they will be using. The Military University of Technology is equipped with a lab and offers a range of practical classes to its students, as well as internships outside the university. Some of the students at the Faculty of Cryptology, which was launched in 1997, study there because they want to work for the armed forces. They have internships at the Internal Security Agency or similar agencies and start working there after graduation. There are now around 40 students at the Faculty of Cryptology: 20 studying for a bachelor’s degree and another 20 for a master’s degree. Under new agreements with the National Cryptology Center, the number of students will increase in the coming years. The National Cryptology Center will also be intensifying its work with the universities of technology in Warsaw and Wrocław and the University of Warsaw.
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