CSO Perspectives (Pro) 6.28.21
Ep 5553 | 6.28.21

Bonus: Cybersecurity Canon Hall of Fame interview with Liza Mundy.


Rick Howard: The CSO Perspectives podcast finished its fifth season a couple of weeks ago, and we are working hard on season six that will begin on 19 July. But don't feel sad. We have a special treat for you instead. The Cybersecurity Canon Project announced the author selectees for the 2021 Hall of Fame awards back in May.

Rick Howard: And you all know that I'm a huge advocate of reading in general, but specifically we all need to read more good cybersecurity books. And I emphasize the good there. Because there are many published, bad cybersecurity books out there. And I had been involved in the Cybersecurity Canon Project since the beginning in an attempt to find the books that all of us should have read by now.

Rick Howard: And the reason that I'm excited today is that I get to interview the author of one of the 2021 Hall of Fame awardees, Liza Mundy, the author of "Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Codebreakers Who Helped Win World War II."

Rick Howard: My name is Rick Howard. You are listening to CSO Perspectives, my podcast about the ideas, strategies, and technologies that senior security executives wrestle with on a daily basis.

Rick Howard: The Cybersecurity Canon Committee selected five books for inclusion into the Hall of Fame this year. "Transformational Security Awareness" by Perry Carpenter, "Zero Trust Networks: Building Secure Systems in Untrusted Networks" by Doug Barth and Evan Gilman, "LikeWar" by Peter Singer and Emerson Brooking, "Sandworm" by Andy Greenberg, and "Code Girls" by Liza Mundy.

Rick Howard: I've been a fan boy to the code breaking efforts at Bletchley Park during World War II for many years now. Alan Turing is a personal computer science hero of mine. And, I first heard about his Enigma-busting exploits against German codes in my favorite hacker novel of all time,  "Cryptonomicon" written by the Cybersecurity Canon Lifetime Achievement winner, Neil Stevenson. 

Rick Howard: I always knew that there were like-minded efforts going on in the Pacific Theater. I had heard rumors of the Americans breaking various codes like the team working for William Friedman solving the Japanese Purple Code, and the efforts of Joe Rochefort breaking the JN-25 Code that led to the victory at the Battle of Midway. But I never stumbled upon any books that told the complete story. Well, now I have. "Code Girls" by Liza Mundy is a treasure. When I got Liza into the CyberWire Hash Table, I asked her about what compelled her to write this book. 

Liza Mundy: Once I learned about the story of 10,000 women being recruited to come to Washington during World War II, many of them, former school teachers and/ or college seniors, I couldn't resist telling the story. I couldn't believe that the story hadn't already been told in the many books that existed on World War II code breaking.

Rick Howard: The remarkable characteristic about the code girl story is that despite the heroic efforts of Friedman and Rochefort, the day-to-day work of deciphering Japanese and other nations' codes during World War II was largely done by American women, civilians at first, and then in collaboration with the newly formed WAVES, or Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service in the United States Naval Reserve, and the WAACs, the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps, that both came into service in 1942.

Rick Howard: While military and civilian men mostly got the credit, it was these remarkable women who ran the show and their efforts were so secretive. That many of these women went to their grave without telling their loved ones, what they did during the war. Family and friends thought that the code girls simply performed administrative work. In the book, Liza is able to tell the stories of some 20 plus women, what they did with their code breaking efforts and how they lived their lives during the war. I asked Liza about the decision made by military leaders to inject 10,000 women into the code breaking war effort. In other words, what was the catalyst? 

Liza Mundy: Pearl Harbor was a terrible surprise to the United States. It was the event that launched us into the into World War II, and it was also a massive intelligence failure. And at the very same moment that we were sending tens and ultimately hundreds of thousands of young men out to fight in all corners of the world, crossing these major oceans, we knew how inadequate our intelligence gathering abilities were.

Liza Mundy: And we had to ramp up our signals intelligence really overnight in order to make sure that another Pearl Harbor didn't occur. And before the war, it would have been young men who were recruited to do this work, but they were suddenly unavailable. And so when I was doing my research for the book, I found a document in which you could see the light bulb moment going on above a navel officials had it read. It was the recruiting document for the Navy's code breaking service, and it read "new source: women's colleges." And so for the first time in American history, educated women and bright women were allowed to show what they could do.

Rick Howard: "Code Girls" gives the reader an inside glimpse of the world of cryptography, the art and science of code making, encrypt analysis, the discipline for code breaking, and cryptology, the umbrella phrase that captures both. In the book, Liza describes code girls that did all three.

Rick Howard: As an aside for the computer gamers out there, if you think you might like to try your hand at cryptology, there is a charming little first person shooter computer game called "Cypher," spelled C Y P H E R, where you walk through a museum of cryptography and solve the multiple puzzles using various crypt analysis techniques like steganography, transposition, monoalphabetic substitution, polyalphabetic substitution, mechanized cryptography, and digital cryptography. I got as far as the first puzzle before I got stumped, but hey, this might be your thing.

Rick Howard: Liza documents, the stories of the 10,000 women who came to DC and other places to help with the code breaking effort. But there were definitely some superstars like Agnes Meyer Driscoll, who not only broke the codes, but train the men who ultimately got credit for some big breakthroughs like Joe Rochefort.

Liza Mundy: Breaking code systems have different meanings. And there was the daily breaking of messages that was done by a thousands of women. But there's also the high level breaking of the code system that entails diagnosing how a code system, how a code or cypher system works. And during the 1930s, Agnes Driscoll, a former school teacher and an absolute genius, was working the code breaking desk at the U.S. Naval offices in downtown Washington, and she was training them like Joe Rochefort.

Rick Howard: Driscoll, one of the greatest cryptoanalysts of all time, cracked Japanese Naval fleet codes during the 1920s and 30s, cursed like a sailor (I love that she did that), and she is famous for saying that any man-made code could be broken by a woman. Damn straight. 

Rick Howard: And then there was Elizabeth Smith Friedman. She helped found the U.S. Government's first code breaking bureau and broke rumrunner codes during Prohibition working for the Justice and Treasury Departments, the Customs Bureau, and the Coast Guard. Her efforts resulted in successful prosecutions and she was very publicly called to testify as an expert witness in those trials. She married and taught William Friedman about code breaking techniques, the man who supervised the breaking of the Japanese Purple Code.

Liza Mundy: Elizabeth Friedman was every bit the codebreaker that her husband William Friedman was, and really the two of them helped pioneer cryptography in the United States. They met at this very eccentric, think tank in Illinois called Riverbank. And, it was founded by very eccentric man who wanted to prove that Shakespeare had not written Shakespeare's plays. But he had also amassed a lot of books, textbooks, about cryptography that were mostly from Europe. And the Friedmans were very young and both of them very, very bright and they met there and, and then this Riverbank started doing really it was like an early beltway contracting company. It was the U.S. Government was starting to need code breaking ability in the early 20th century, and upon our entry into World War I, and they would outsource a lot of their work to Riverbank where the Friedmans were developing the ability to break code systems. 

Liza Mundy: And Elizabeth Friedman was really best known for working with the Coast Guard and various other entities, sometimes the FBI, to break the codes of the rumrunners who were communicating with ships that were moored at international waters during Prohibition. And shipments of alcohol would be brought to shore and they were using code systems to communicate. And Elizabeth Friedman broke those code systems and she was called to testify in some trials and became known for code of breaking work. 

Liza Mundy: And then the Friedmans moved to Washington because William Friedman was hired by the Army to run their very small, beginning of a code breaking bureau. Elizabeth, of course, came with him and they were two of the very few people in Washington who could do this work, and she was very much in demand, again mostly for law enforcement purposes, because, as we know, all sorts of people like to use good systems and criminals, not just rumrunners, but all sorts of different criminals are among those who liked to use code systems. And incidentally, it was, there were some news articles on Elizabeth Friedman, a very dashing woman, able to do this really interesting work. And, there were other women who read about her exploits who thought, "wow, that sounds a lot better than teaching school," which was the other job that was available to educated women, and so her renown helped attract some other early women into this work. 

Rick Howard: I would be remiss if I didn't mention two of my other favorites, like Genevieve Grotjan, who in September 1940, discovered a Purple Code breakthrough that enabled the Allies to eavesdrop on Japanese diplomatic communications for the entirety of World War II. This intelligence had the cool code name called magic. I love the spy stuff.

Rick Howard: Another favorite of mine is Ann Caracristi. She was a problem-solving prodigy, intellectually ferocious and worked 12 hour shifts day after day. As a 23 year old, she became the head of an Army research unit. She was one of only a few superstars who were asked to stay on after the war. She had this mesmerizing thing she could do, flipping a pencil between her fingers and never dropping it like the hacker character Boris Grishenko played by actor Alan Cumming in the 1995 James Bond movie, GoldenEye.

Rick Howard: I do have two minor nitpicks about the book, and I want to emphasize that these are really minor. The first is that Liza tells a scattered story. If the reader wants to hear about the extraordinary accomplishments of saying Ann Caracristi, there is not one place to look. You have to pick it up in fragments as you read the book. I found that a little bit frustrating. The second is that Liza spends a lot of time on the code girls' social life like parties, boyfriends, proposals, marriages, you know, that kind of thing.

Rick Howard: All of that's fine. And I'm sure there's, some readers will enjoy that. But for me, it kept pulling me away from the code breaking accomplishments of these phenomenal women. I wanted more of that and less about dress styles, but you know, it's just me.

Rick Howard: Those two minor complaints aside, I want to give a full-throated endorsement for this book. It opens up a history into World War II that I didn't know about before, and it makes the case that women don't have to break into the cybersecurity industry. They have been here from the very beginning.

Rick Howard: The book is called "Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Codebreakers Who Helped Win World War II." The author is Liza Mundy, and she is the newest author addition to the Cybersecurity Canon Hall of Fame. And if you are interested in the collection of Cybersecurity Canon Hall of Fame books, plus all the candidate books, and even the best novels with a cybersecurity theme, check out the Cybersecurity Canon website, sponsored by Ohio State University at ICDT dot OSU that EDU slash cybercanon, all one word and with one "n" for canon of literature, not two "n's" machines that blow things up. And, if that's all too hard, go to your preferred search engine and type Cybersecurity Canon, and Ohio State University, and congratulations to Liza for her induction into the Cybersecurity Canon Hall of Fame.

Rick Howard: And, that's a wrap. Next week, the CSO Perspectives podcast is still on break preparing for season six, which starts on 19 July. I may have mentioned that before. While we're away, we'll keep running my long interviews with the 2021 author inductees into the Cybersecurity Canon Hall of Fame. Next week, I will review "LikeWar" by PW Singer and Emerson Brooking. You don't want to miss that. 

Rick Howard: The CyberWire's CSO Perspectives is edited by John Petrik and executive produced by Peter Kilpe. Our theme song is by Blue Dot Sessions, remixed by the insanely talented Elliott Peltzman, who also does the sho'w mixing, sound design, and original score. And, I am Rick Howard. Thanks for listening.