GHCQ setup a new challenge in November 2011 to attract new code breakers. While this challenge was aimed at attracting the interest of computer programmers and computer security experts, the code breaking challenge was open to all on website “_Can you crack it?“.
The UK Intelligence agency’s challenge began in secret on 3rd November; they subsequently spread the site’s presence to blogs, forums and social media sites according the BBC. The challenge ran until mid December 2011.
“_Can you crack it?” was reported on BBC’s technology news website on 1st December 2011. GHCQ have previously placed code puzzles in network gaming environments in an attempt to recruit computing security expertise.
Some government agencies, universities and companies around the world have appeared in media reports during 2011 due to the number of attacks from viruses, Trojans and bot-nets through to crackers. The term hacker was hijacked by the media to mean ‘a cracker’, but really a hacker is an expert in computing.
The image on “_Can you crack it?” appears to be a piece of computing machine code, shown in hexadecimal. Those of us who remember our BASIC, Pascal, C and assembler days will also recall applications like XTree (on MS-DOS) and Ytree on *NIX (UNIX/Linux OS such as FreeBSD, NetBSD and RedHat) which would allow one to view the raw machine code language in a file’s content; very useful for recovering WordPrefect text data from a corrupted file! Other clues can be picked up in some of the code, for example “eb” and “90”.
However what the code contains would require further analysis, starting with copying out the code and loading this data into a disassembler or decompiler, to view this computer code in some form of readable language; in this example I would use a disassembler. Analysing the code would allow one to determine whether it is machine code or something else. My coding skills are somewhat rusty and I am currently brushing up.
Knowing that GHCQ had placed this code into the website “_Can you crack it?” through the BBC news article, it is a fair assumption that the solution would lead to some sort of recruitment site for GHCQ. As I would like to know the solution out of curiosity, I ran a Google search to see if someone else had found one. Dr. Gareth Owen at the School of Engineering, University of Greenwich, London England, has found a solution and provides some excellent and very useful video tutorials in solving this problem: http://gchqchallenge.blogspot.com/.
This is recommended viewing for all budding computer programmers and for existing coders. However here is a health warning for all budding computer programmers: in the immortal words of the “Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy“, “Don’t Panic!” The level of competency demonstrated by Dr. Owen in these video solutions is neat and advanced. Solving this problem demonstrates a skill set of a particularly experienced computer scientist. Please don’t let this challenge put anyone off from wanting to enter into the world of computer programming and ultimately into computer science. Watching Dr. Owen’s video tutorials demonstrate neatly the simplicity that can be found in complex problem solving by applying logic and thought to a problem.
For an alternative news article on GHCQ’s November 2011 code cracking problem, please also see article “Codebreakers find evidence for hidden puzzle in GCHQ challenge” on The Register.