- Gordon Corera
- BBC Security Correspondent
Today, having secure communications is at your fingertips with endless applications for the phone, something that was unthinkable a few decades ago.
40 years ago a man was given a secret mission: to make an encryption device to send sensitive information and intelligence to high officials in the United Kingdom.
Now He breaks his silence for the first time.
The mission began in a department store in the British city of Cheltenham. It was 1980 and Mike (only his first name, as his identity is still withheld) worked close by, at the Government Communications Head Quarters (GCHQ), one of the intelligence services of the country.
In the crowded store, Mike bought two regular briefcases and took them to his lab. He ripped out everything inside them and filled them with state-of-the-art technology.
What emerged was code-named Brahms, a normal-looking briefcase with the UK’s first portable encrypted communications system, designed to allow high-ranking officials to communicate securely.
A more practical system
Secure transmissions were not new, although they had their difficulties.
During the Second World War, when the leaders of the United States and the United Kingdom wanted to have a conversation that would not be intercepted, they used a huge machine that, in the case of London, was permanently in the basement of Selfridges, a department store in the very heart of the city.
But by 1980, new technology was making what used to take up an entire room now fit into a laptop, making it much more practical for use by many more people in a time of crisis.
Brahms’s machine includes what looks like a normal telephone handset but with a button on one end. When pressed, it converts the sound into digital zeros and ones.
A special encryption code, housed in a paper tape inside the briefcase – and which was changed every day – encoded those digits. It was then sent over a normal telephone line.
Only that message could be deciphered and the digits converted back to a machine-like voice on the other end with another briefcase having the same code on its tape.
Anyone intercepting that phone line would only hear a digital hiss.
Only one person could speak at a time and it wasn’t fast: Transmitted at 2.4 kilobytes per second (current average UK broadband speed is 21,000 times faster).
A James Bond trip
It had a flaw. “Women’s voices didn’t come out very well because of the high frequency,” Mike says, apologetically, referring to the fact that the female voice usually has a higher frequency range than the male.
However the main customer of the machine was a womanpioneer in leading a British government: Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
To pre-test Brahms abroad, Mike was given a James Bond-style assignment.
I had to take the briefcase to a castle in the swiss alps, where Thatcher was on vacation. To do this, he was appointed temporary messenger of the Queen and went on a flight to Geneva with two reserved seats, one for him and one for the briefcase. They told him that, upon his arrival, he would meet a man at the airport who was carrying a brown envelope as an identification sign.
When he arrived at the castle where the prime minister was, he was offered a weapon. He said no.
One more weapon in the Falkland/Malvinas
The Brahms system was used in the 1982 Falklands/Malvinas War. Thatcher used it to discuss rules of conflict with the Ministry of Defence, leading to the controversial sinking of the General Belgrano cruiser of the Argentine Navy.
Stephanie (for security, only her first name), worked shifts in a special GCHQ office that dealt with intelligence and was operational 24 hours a day.
“To a large degree it was a man’s toy“, remembers somewhat upset, since the workers were told not to use it.
But one day, early in the morning, the Brahms rang. There were no men on shift.
“We all looked at each other and said, ‘Well, there are no men in the office, so one of us will have to answer the phone.’ So I went and picked it up.”
The person on the other end had just received some intelligence that he wanted to confirm.
“We knew that every piece of information we sent our guys was meaningful,” he says, recalling seeing the importance of his work reflected on television news.
“Destroy it. Burn it. Eat it”
When the Falkland/Malvinas conflict began, GCHQ quickly went from having one or two analysts working alone to producing over 6,000 reports intelligence during the war.
Brahms’s creation meant that people in need could often be called instantly by telephone.
But with great power like that comes great responsibility: What if you were secretly using the machine somewhere, like a hotel room abroad, and suddenly your briefcase was robbed?
In the Brahms machine there are instructions on what to do in case of an emergency.
Mike remembers the options well.
Shut down the computer, and then find a way to get rid of the key tape. “Destroy it. Burn it. Ultimately, you could eat it,” Mike explains with a smile.
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