Posted by: David Schneier
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Given the long and mostly distinguished history of the British Empire, the comparatively short life of Bletchley Park barely registers in terms of longevity. But in terms of historical significance, the collection of nondescript buildings that is the center of the code-breaking world should be at the top of the list. It is no hyperbole to suggest that without the work done by the men and women at Bletchley who toiled around the clock to break the Germans’ Enigma code, the world would be a very different place today.
The British were among the first nations to see the military value of both offensive and defensive cryptological operations, and as war loomed in Europe in the late 1930s, the British government moved its codebreaking operation to Bletchley Park in order to consolidate everyone in one location. It turned out to be a brilliant move. The collection of mathematicians, intelligence analysts and scientists who manned Bletchley Park pulled off one of the great coups in modern military and scientific history when they were able to crack the codes that the German navy was using to encrypt communications among its U-boats, which at the time were having a field day picking off Allied military and civilian ships. The analysts later broke the German air force and army ciphers as well, giving the Allies crucial intelligence and a huge advantage in the latter stages of World War II.
Now, more than 60 years later, Bletchley Park is in serious danger of being shuttered and left to rot. The site is currently a museum and learning center and doesn’t get any government funding. A last-ditch effort earlier this year to get money from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation failed. Today, IBM and PGP stepped up and donated $100,000 to the cause, which is a tremendous gesture, but that’s still just a start, unfortunately. It would be a crime to let this site fall by the wayside and have its history lost to future generations. But don’t take my word for it. I talked to Bruce Schneier, who’s been to the site and knows the history of cryptography as well as anyone, and he is troubled by the prospect of Bletchley being mothballed.
“This is our crypto heritage. They invented modern computing there,” he said. “This is a huge part of crypto history, of British history, of world history. The work they did there shortened the war by years. Years. I can’t understand why the British government doesn’t fund this. I like what IBM and PGP did, but it’s only a stop-gap. This will continue to happen unless something changes.”
The questions is, what can be done? To start with, companies like RSA Security Inc., Certicom Corp., Utimaco Safeware Inc. and even Microsoft and Sun Microsystems Inc. should follow the lead of IBM and PGP Corp. and step up with some cash. Where would these companies be without the advances made at Bletchley? In the longer term, the U.S. and U.K. governments should find a way to supply some ongoing funding to Bletchley. We’re not talking about breaking the bank here. A couple of million dollars a year would do wonders. Call it whatever you need to, but get it done.
In the meantime, there’s a petition to save Bletchley Park you can sign, and the museum’s website also had a PayPal account set up to take donations. If you had Tom Brady in the office NFL injury pool and have some extra cash on hand, send some their way. They need all the help they can get.