01 September 2010

Women Did It Better: Pioneer Codebreakers

By Carrie Lofty

Bletchley Park in England became the hub of Allied cryptography during WWII, famous for cracking Germany's Enigma code. The intelligence organization housed there, known as the Government Code and Cypher School, was staffed by more than 80% women. But two of the most dynamic and influential female codebreakers of the era were from the United States: Anges Meyer Driscoll and Elizebeth Friedman.

Illinois-born Anges Meyer Driscoll enlisted in the US Navy in 1918, just after the United States entered WWI. With her university background in foreign languages and mathematics, she entered as a chief yeoman and was assigned to the Code and Signal section of the Director of Naval Communications.

Emerging cryptographic methods included the invention and implementation of rotor machines to tackle mathematically-based codes--machines that were, in essence, proto-computers. Agnes was a tremendous advocate of this new technology and developed one of the Navy's first such machines, called "CM," during WWI. Thirty years of work on Japanese naval codes resulted in several considerable breakthroughs, including JN-25, the Japanese fleet's operational code. After Agnes and her team cracked JN-25, the post-Pearl Harbor Navy was able to out-maneuver the Japanese fleet.

Agnes also assisted in the Navy's attempt to pick apart Enigma, but that responsibility was eventually turned over to Bletchley Park. Following her retirement from the Navy after more than 30 years of service, she joined the NSA (National Security Agency) in 1952. She was buried in Arlington after her death in 1971 and was inducted into the NSA's Hall of Fame in 2000.

Indiana-born Elizebeth Friedman introduced her husband, renowned codebreaker William F. Friedman, to the field of cryptology--a passion they would share throughout their 52 years of marriage. She spoke Greek, Latin and German upon graduating from college with a degree in literature. Her love of Shakespeare earned her a job at the US intelligence facility known as Riverbank, where she initially studied whether Shakespeare's plays had actually been written by Sir Francis Bacon. Elizebeth's skills with language and the detection of patterns and anomalies eventually landed her a place at the forefront of Riverbank's juvenile codebreaking operations, including deciphering Prohibition-era codes used by gangsters.

Elizebeth and her husband left Riverbank in 1921 to found the War Department's Signals Intelligence Service, which William headed for 25 years. Elizebeth's skills at Prohibition-based decryptions were so in demand that she convinced Congress in the early 1930s of the need to train more people like her. Additional cryptoanalysts on the government payroll freed her and her husband to tackle more anomalous codes and, unbeknownst to them, to hone their skills for the conflict to come. Even being unfamiliar with a language did not stop her from applying mathematics and logic, as was exemplified by her decryption of a Mandarin Chinese code in a 1937 Canadian opium smuggling ring. She became the expert witness of choice in any trial involving the analysis of broken codes, and traveled extensively to help secure these convictions.

During WWII, Elizebeth was responsible for deciphering the codes that would eventually find Japanese spy Velvalee Dickinson, the notorious "Doll Woman," guilty of wartime censorship violation (a plea bargain down from espionage, which would've brought her the death penalty). Elizebeth and her husband were key players in negotiating with Bletchley Park to share information between Allied codebreaking operations. They exchanged deciphering machines and intelligence that resulted in many breakthroughs in the European Theater. Elizebeth's Coast Guard unit at one point attached to the Navy where she and her team solved one of the Enigma codes used by German submarines.

After the war, Elizebeth designed security measures for the Intenrational Monetary Fund and, with her husband, co-authored The Shakespearean Ciphers Examined, which revisited her early love for Shakespeare and the mysteries of his authorship. She died in 1980 at the age of 88 and is remembered as the first female American codebreaker.