Bletchley Park was the site of wartime code cracking by the British. But this is not just a historical curiosity: its importance is still relevant today. Some of Facebook’s technical breakthroughs date back to the super-secret birthplace of Turing’s “Bomb”.
Located in Milton Keynes, about 80 kilometers north of London, Bletchley Park was home to thousands of women and men who were part of the Government Code and Cypher School (GC & CS) during World War II. It was there that British mathematician Alan Turing and his team cracked the German Enigma code, using the world’s first specialized computing device. Dubbed the “Bomb,” Turing’s electromechanical machine was able to mimic Enigma devices, performing sophisticated cryptoanalysis of the code to ultimately read the encrypted messages the Germans exchanged. This technology allowed the Allies to eavesdrop on the secret communications of their enemies and helped determine the outcome of the war.
The Bomb was quickly followed by the Colossus computer, developed by Turing’s colleague Tommy Flowers. Colossus cracked the Germans’ Lorenz code, a more complicated code that encrypted sensitive communications, and ultimately provided Allied forces with information regarding the disposition of enemy troops in Normandy for the “D-Day” landing.
Facebook and its Zoncolan analysis tool
While the work at Bletchley Park was crucial back then, the legacy of Turing and his team still permeates our modern world. The Bomb and Colossus indeed established the principles of many protocols that underpin today’s internet security. One example among many is Facebook’s program analysis tool called Zoncolan, which was designed to examine the hundreds of millions of lines of code the company runs every day, drawing conclusions without having to. run the program, in a hunt for potentially dangerous vulnerabilities.
“When you look at the work that has been done to understand how to use program analysis to develop the safety and security of the applications we use on Facebook – we can directly relate that to the work of Alan Turing,” argues Gemma. Silvers, director of engineering at Facebook, at . “The improvements made by this team have helped us, as a company, to identify many security holes that in other cases would have required many hours of human analysis. This is an example of program analysis and vulnerability detection with a close connection to Bletchley Park, ”she explains.
Alan Turing is also often considered “the father of modern computing”, and for good reason. His work at Bletchley Park demonstrated the potential of the mechanization of decryption, and led to the construction of the first large-scale computer. “It’s a piece of vital history on which our industry is built,” notes Gemma Silvers.
The logic of separation
The Bomb and Colossus quickly inspired designs for general-purpose computers, for example through an architecture proposed by one of Turing’s acquaintances, John von Neumann. John von Neumann’s architecture, which was built on the basis of Turing’s computational theory, included such things as binary storage of data and instructions, on which many general-purpose computers are based today. Facebook has just announced a £ 1million donation to the site to support operations over the next two years as the Covid-19 pandemic takes a strain on Bletchley Park’s budget.
“There are deep parallels in the way we think about computing and the application of AI,” argues Gemma Silvers. “It’s no exaggeration to say that the problems we solve at Facebook would be fundamentally different without the work of Turing and his team at Bletchley. “
For example, one of the Facebook researchers and UCL professor Peter O’Hearn drew on Turing’s program analysis work to develop a new theory called separation logic. A whole new way of thinking about code, O’Hearn’s theory has now been incorporated into the platform’s vulnerability detection program to find pre-production bugs. The Separation Logic was opened in 2016 and is used by Amazon, Spotify, Uber, Mozilla, and others.
The work of Peter O’Hearn is just one example of the enormous debt the modern world owes to Turing and his team, and to the work that has been done at Bletchley Park. “Much of the modern technological world as we know it is driven by some of the innovations at Bletchley Park during this era,” says Gemma Silvers. And it is certain that Turing’s legacy in computing has not yet reached its limits. From quantum computing to artificial intelligence, the coming years are going to be filled with breakthrough technologies, many of which will have been indirectly created at the Milton Keynes site.