Visiting the National Cryptologic Museum

On a recent visit to Washington, DC, I managed to find a few spare minutes to stop by the National Cryptologic Museum. The display of old supercomputers was interesting – particularly because a few of them were the very types of machines that I used in a previous job – like a Cray Y-MP and a Connection Machines CM-5. This was back in the days when we used to talk about processor speeds in terms like “5 nanoseconds” instead of “200 megahertz” because it sounded cooler, and it was a bit eerie to see these old machines labeled the same way in this museum.

Another interesting display showed the encrypting telephones that the US government has used over the past few decades and some of the older ones were impressively large, and really weren’t the sort of thing that you’d really want to keep on your desk.

On the other hand, the TSD-3600E, sometimes called the “Clipper phone,” was visibly absent. That’s notorious device that AT&T built for the NSA back in the ‘90s that included a key escrow capability that the government could use to decrypt any conversations that you might have been encrypting. Assuming that they got the right approval first, of course.

I’ve heard that AT&T was clever when they negotiated the contract for the TSD-3600E with the NSA. AT&T correctly assumed that almost nobody would actually want to buy a Clipper Phone, so they agreed to make several thousand of them only if the NSA agreed to buy the entire lot. When the minimal sales that AT&T expected actually materialized, the NSA was apparently left with a huge inventory of brand new, never used TSD-3600Es that they never could find homes for. They’re probably still in some warehouse in Maryland. Maybe the same one that holds the Ark of the Covenant.

Looking back at the ‘90s, the government’s attempt to force everyone to use key escrow if they wanted to use non-weak encryption wasn’t really a very good idea, so I suppose that it’s really not too surprising that the National Cryptologic Museum doesn’t have one of the old TSD-3600Es on display. Maybe the NSA wants to forget that particular bit of cryptologic history. I certainly would if I worked there these days.

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