Exhibition cracks code on secret science of encryption

A new exhibit by the Canada Science and Technology Museum, in partnership with the Canadian government's national cryptology agency, is all about demystifying the secretive world of encryption and cybersecurity.

Cipher-Decipher in Ottawa until late November, then on to Kingston

Molly McCullough, assistant curator with Ingenium, the consortium of museums which includes the Canada Science and Technology Museum, looks at an authentic Enigma cipher machine. (Mario Carlucci/CBC)

A new exhibit by the Canada Science and Technology Museum, in partnership with the Canadian government's national cryptology agency, is all about demystifying the secretive world of encryption and cybersecurity.

Cipher-Decipher is currently being shown at Library and Archives Canada, before moving to the museum in November and then on to Kingston, Ont.

According to Molly McCullough, who helped create the exhibition, it not only explores the past and present of communications cryptology, but does so with a high degree of interactivity.

Interactive displays like this one that's part of the Cipher-Decipher exhibition help simplify the complicated world of cybersecurity. (Ingenium)

"This exhibition is designed to make a complicated subject really accessible to Canadians, and to make it interesting and fun as well," said McCullough, assistant curator for the Ingenium consortium of museums that includes the Canada Science and Technology Museum.

"We jump between older examples, Second World War, Cold War, and more contemporary uses of encryption, whether it's home WiFi and personal email. We also go beyond encryption and cyber security to talk about some of the other risks we face in our day-to-day lives."

As part of the exhibition — produced with the help of the federal Communications Security Establishment (CSE) — you can test your cyber smarts to find out how safe your personal information is online.

Then there are the gadgets.

The exhibition features an authentic Enigma cipher machine, borrowed from the CSE's collection and popularized by the movie The Imitation Game. The film tells the story of Alan Turing and other code breakers who successfully cracked the Enigma at Bletchley Park in England.

This 2002 file picture shows a four-rotor Enigma machine, right, once used by the crews of German U-boats in the Second World War to send coded messages. ((Alex Dorgan Ross/Associated Press))

"This machine is so complicated, so difficult to understand, so difficult to crack — which is why it was such a big deal. And we wanted to help visitors understand how it works," said McCullough.

"We have a computer version of it that slows down the whole process, so visitors can input their own message and watch as the letter they put in goes through the machine and becomes another letter."

You can also try your hand at logic puzzles and games as part of the exhibition. Who knows, McCullough said — you might learn that you have what it takes to work in the field of cryptology. 

We sneak over to the Library and Archives to visit a new exhibition that's all about secrets: how we make them, keep them, and steal them. 7:27

Where and when

Cipher-Decipher will be at Library and Archives Canada until Oct. 31.

The exhibit moves to the Canada Science and Technology Museum from Nov. 6-25.

Then it heads to Kingston, where it will be on display at the Military Communications and Electronics Museum from Dec. 7 to March 31, 2019.