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Safe-Cracking: The Myth of a Secure Military

Written by Robert Murphy on January 15, 2015

On NPR today they were talking about cybersecurity. The host made a throwaway remark along the lines that with private businesses, you couldn’t expect a full-throated response to the threats his expert guests were discussing, because they responded to the profit motive and it “wasn’t like Los Alamos.”Here the host was referring to the famous lab where physicists and other scientists worked on the atomic bomb during World War II, and then continued to work on nuclear weaponry. His point, of course, was that the military engaged in state-of-the-art security to protect such critical secrets, whereas you couldn’t expect Visa to do the same thing for its customers.

This statement was immediately ironic, because the very discussion of the episode centered on the “hacks” of Sony and Target, yes, but also Centcom. So it’s clear that the U.S. military (if we take the press accounts at face value) was not immune to the very threats they were discussing on the show. To repeat, one of the news hooks for their discussion was the fact that U.S. Central Command’s twitter account had supposedly been hacked by ISIS.

Yet beyond that irony, there is the problem that Richard Feynman–a Nobel laureate in physics–recounts the famous tale in his wonderful memoir that he had discovered a huge security flaw while working on the atomic bomb. Specifically, Feynman had discovered that if someone left his or her office safe open (during the day while everyone was working), Feynman could “casually” read the combination from the interior of the exposed lock. Then he would go to his office and write it down, such that he had the ability to open the safes of a growing number of employees.

At one point Feynman visited the office of a colonel, and boasted that he could crack the colonel’s safe. Here’s how Feynamn tells the story:

“The only reason you think they’re safe in there is because civilians call it a ‘safe.’” (I put the word “civilians” in there to make it sound as if he’d been had by civilians.)

He got very angry. “What do you mean—it’s not safe?”

“A good safecracker could open it in thirty minutes.”

“Can you open it in thirty minutes?”

“I said a good safecracker. It would take me about forty-five.”

“Well!” he said. “My wife is waiting at home for me with supper, but I’m gonna stay here and watch you, and you’re gonna sit down and work on that damn thing for forty-five minutes and not open it!” (Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman, 145-146)

Feynman naturally cracks the safe (because he had read the combination while the colonel was looking at paperwork and the safe door was open), and astonishes the military man. Then he candidly explains the security vulnerability.

(For the rest of the article, click the link.)

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