Enigma machine keyboard

The man who found an original WWII Enigma machine on eBay

Image credit: E&T Magazine

David Cripps, chief information security officer at blockchain firm SETL, is the loving owner of an historic Enigma Machine. Speaking to E&T at Cyber Security Connect UK in Monaco, he explained how he acquired this rare artefact.

“In our world of cyber security, there are not many artefacts,” said Cripps. “Nowadays, it’s all digital certificates and there’s not much that you can put your hands on and say: “This is what we used to secure things”. So I loved the idea of the Enigma machine. I never thought I’d actually get to own one.”

The Enigma machines were electro-mechanical encryption devices best known for their use by Nazi Germany during World War II to encrypt its military communications. The machines – which roughly resemble typewriters – scrambled messages by changing their rotor settings with every letter typed, offering more than 100 sextillion possible settings. Although the Nazis believed the Enigma was effectively unbreakable, the discreet efforts of Polish mathematicians at the Polish Cipher Bureau and British codebreakers at Bletchley Park allowed the Allies to comprehend the workings of the machine - an achievement credited with shortening the war by years and saving an estimated 14 to 28 million lives.

Particularly valuable to the codebreakers was the Nazis’ bad habit of beginning the first message of the morning with a standard weather report and ending many messages with “Heil Hitler”, while a considerable amount of useful information could also be gleaned from Enigma metadata (using “traffic analysis”). Cripps believes that despite the digital age rendering mass communication and observation possible, little has changed in the history of encryption: we are still making the same foolish, age-old mistakes.

“If you look at emails today, the footer of every email is a standard disclaimer,” said Cripps. “Another one of the things that came [from the wartime codebreaking effort] was not just looking at the messages but looking at the traffic flows and the metadata: who is sending the messages and so forth. A lot of the interception of communications today is not about the message as such, it’s the metadata.”

Few Enigma machines survived the war, as most were destroyed to prevent them falling into the hands of Allied forces. The remaining devices are mostly on display at museums and on rare occasions they may appear at prestigious auction houses like Christie’s or Sotheby’s (in 2017 an Enigma machine was sold for a record $547,500/£429,000 at Christie’s).

It was a surprise to Cripps, then, when an intact Enigma machine was listed on eBay in 2013. The ‘Crypto Collectors’ group that Cripps belonged to – which included museum curators and other historical encryption experts – could not identify that particular machine and was convinced that the machine on offer was a fake.

“The general consensus was that it was a scam so there was no interest in buying the machine,” said Cripps. “That sort of thing doesn’t come up on eBay.”

Cripps reached out to the user behind the listing: a Russian called Yurius: “After talking to him for about a week, he realised I was a serious purchaser who really wanted the machine.” Yurius passed him onto the real owner, a man called Alex.

Alex spoke no English and Cripps spoke no Russian, so the two men used Google Translate to exchange emails. Alex was silent on how the machine had fallen into his hands, but provided Cripps with photocopies of delivery manifests which proved that it had been manufactured in a Berlin factory in 1941. The men eventually agreed on a value and decided to meet at the Hotel Nuremburg in Hamburg to complete the deal.

Alex flew from Russia with the Enigma machine, while Cripps flew from the UK with a brick-sized wad of American dollars. When they met at the hotel, Cripps was slightly taken aback to find Alex not alone in the hotel room; he was accompanied by two seemingly ex-military men.

Cripps used the tips passed on by the other Crypto Collectors to check that the machine was genuine and fully functioning (although there are no “fake” Enigma machines, there are some high-quality reproductions in circulation). The machine was authentic and intact; he even opened up the battery compartment to discover the original 4.5V battery from the eve of the war was still sealed inside, untouched after 70 years. He exchanged his stack of dollars for the machine and left the hotel room.

With the Enigma machine wrapped protectively in a Barbie-pink towel and zipped in a wheelie suitcase, Cripps headed back to the airport. It was then that he fully came to the realisation that he was likely to attract difficult questions while wheeling expensive Nazi paraphernalia through a German airport. As he entered customs, a stony-faced customs officer – spotting what was hidden inside his suitcase as it passed through the CT scanner – took him aside.

To his great relief, it emerged that the customs officer had only wanted a photo with it.

Once Cripps and his Enigma machine were safely home, he started reaching out to museums, hoping that one of them may be willing to take on the machine and display it properly. Some thanked him and declined, one never replied (Cripps suspects that they thought he was joking), but Bletchley Park “tore [his] arm off” when he got in touch. The museum was preparing to launch a major exhibition to coincide with the release of The Imitation Game, the 2014 period film dramatising the British wartime codebreaking effort.

David Cripps with his enigma machine

E&T Magazine

Image credit: E&T Magazine

Cripps’ Enigma machine became the central attraction in the enormously successful exhibition and after it closed the device remained at Bletchley Park (“its spiritual home”) along with a handful of other loaned machines. A few times a year, however, Cripps takes the Enigma Machine back out of Bletchley Park to bring into schools. He hopes that by sharing this piece of history with children, he can help encourage a diverse new generation of people to consider cyber security as a career.

“I give presentations at school showing them it’s not just geeks and nerds that do this […] you’re investigating and trying to find out the techniques to identify criminals, paedophiles and how they carry out their criminal activities. If you can break down the mask they’re using, you’re helping to stop crime,” said Cripps.

“Technology does tend to be white, male and stale, so how can we encourage a new generation to get involved in this? I love going to the schools and letting the kids have a play with the Enigma machine.”

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