IT Hiccups of the Week: A Second World War Carrier Pigeon's Secret Code and a Missing Pacific Island

50 lucky immigrants to Canada get residency visas and Black Friday goes by with little disruption

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Robert N. Charette is a Contributing Editor to IEEE Spectrum and an acknowledged international authority on information technology and systems risk management.

IT Hiccups of the Week: A Second World War Carrier Pigeon's Secret Code and a Missing Pacific Island

We start off this week’s edition with a story that has its origins dating back to the Second World War.  A few weeks ago, the London Telegraph published an interesting article about the remains of an Allied Forces carrier pigeon found during the recent renovation of a homeowner’s chimney in Bletchingley, Surrey, England. The bird's skeletal remains still had a coded message encased in a red capsule attached to one of its legs.  The message, the Telegraph stated, was “almost certainly dispatched from Nazi-occupied France on 6 June 1944—during the D-Day invasions.”

The Telegraph noted that carrier pigeons were used to inform Allied military commanders in England about how the D-Day operations were proceeding during the radio blackout which Churchill had imposed during the invasion. Over 250 000 such pigeons were used during the course of the war.

The coded message (pdf) was turned over to cryptographers working for the U.K. Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) in Cheltenham. However, after a few weeks of trying, the government cryptographers admitted that they have been unable to break the code. A GCHQ press release explaining why the code remains undeciphered states that, "GCHQ’s experts are now satisfied that the pigeon-borne message assumed to have been sent during the Second World War cannot be decoded without access to the original cryptographic material."

GCHC cryptographers believe the code involved using a "one-time" pad. As explained in the press release, "The basis of a 'one-time pad' encryption system is that a random key is used to encrypt (and subsequently decrypt) only one message. The advantage of this system is that, if used correctly, it is unbreakable as long as the key is kept secret. The disadvantage is that both the sending and receiving parties need to have access to the same key, which usually means producing and sharing a large keypad in advance."

According to a Telegraph story from last week, GCHQ has publicly appealed to any retired codebreakers who worked at Bletchley Park or in military signals during the war to help break the code. Former members of the French resistance are also being contacted to see whether anyone still alive may know the code's key. The Telegraph has invited the public to try to solve the coded message as well. If you feel so inclined, send your answers to – you might win a copy of the Telegraph’s All New Toughie Crossword Book. I suspect, though, if you can crack the code, the crossword book probably won't be much of a challenge.

Unlike last year, Black Friday and the following weekend's online sales suffered few disruptions. On Monday of last week, Best Buy’s “website failed to calculate some of the sales taxes on the Black Friday specials that it offers online ahead of time for its Reward Zone customers,” a story in the Pioneer Press reported. Things were straightened out by the next day. Click Frenzy, Australia's take on today’s Black Monday—when U.S. retailers offer online discounts on electronic merchandise—had a rough start. The group's website, which hosted virtual storefronts for dozens of Aussie retailers, was overwhelmed by heavy demand. Though the site crashed soon after it opened for business,  it was able to recover a few hours later—but not before Click Frenzy organizers received a bashing in the Australian press.  

No major Black Monday IT glitches are being reported thus far today.

Early last week, departments of motor vehicles (DMVs) across the United States were affected for several days by a database problem originating at the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators. That group keeps up to date information used by a state's DMV to verify the information on a driver wanting to exchange an out of state driver's license for one it issues. The database, which kept crashing, reportedly caused long lines at DMVs in Georgia and Nevada, among others.

An IT glitch associated with a change in Canada’s Citizenship and Immigration computers granted permanent residency visas to some 50 immigrants and members of their families even though they were no longer eligible, the Vancouver Sun reported Wednesday.  Luckily for them, Immigration Minister Jason Kenney decided that because it was an “administrative error” on the part of his department, he would allow the 50 to stay in Canada. They probably wouldn’t have been so lucky if they had been moving to the U.S. under the same circumstances.

Finally, the Sydney Morning Herald reported that university scientists working aboard the RV Southern Surveyor, Australia's Marine National Facility research ship, had “undiscovered” an island.  Apparently, Sandy Island is shown on marine charts – and Google Earth – as a large island sitting between Australia and New Caledonia in the south Pacific. However, when the scientists sailed to the charted location of Sandy Island, it was nowhere to be found.

The Herald noted that Sandy Island has appeared in scientific publications since at least the year 2000 without anyone reporting its non-existence. Google, in its defense, said that it “consulted a variety of authoritative public and commercial data sources in building its maps.” However, the Herald said, the company “encouraged users to alert Google to incorrect entries using the 'Report a Problem' tool… which they would then confirm with other users or data providers.”

If I interpret that correctly, Google doesn’t quite believe the Australian university scientists’ word that Sandy Island doesn’t exist. It still apparently needs the island’s non-existence confirmed by others before it will delete it.

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