by André Schulz
11/29/2019 – A good password paired with strong encryption protects data against unexpected loss. No password is unbreakable, but some can last for quote a long time. After 39 years, recently a few old Unix passwords were cracked. Computer pioneer Ken Thompson had hidden his access behind a chess opening. | Photo: Bell Labs
Pawn to queen four
Ken Thompson is one of the heroes of computer history. He worked at Bell Labs most of his life, was co-inventor of the Unix operating system, developed the programming language “B”, a precursor to the current “C” language, and several other important things in computer history. Later he brought his knowledge to Google.
Thompson did great things for chess as well. Together with Joe Condon, he developed the chess computer Belle, who became chess computer world champion in 1980. Many years ago, Thompson had the idea to calculate endgames with limited numbers of pieces and compile them in a database. The first “tablebases”, as they became known, with three, four and five stones came from Ken Thompson. Others continued his idea later with newer computers and more pieces. The concept is in use today in all chess programs.
A few years ago, an encrypted file with the old passwords of computer old-timers like Ken Thompson, Dennis Ritchie, Stephen R. Bourne and Eric Schmidt was found by chance. Leah Neukirchen (see below) had the idea to crack the old passwords that used antiquated encryption with new techniques — which proved to be possible reasonably fast. Only Ken Thompson’s password resisted. With the help of a colleague, Nigel Williams, it too could eventually be cracked.
The password included the sequence p/q2-q4!
What looks reasonably cryptic to everyone else is an easy-to-remember string for chess players. the password means Pawn (Pawn) Queen 2 – Queen 4 (d2-d4). Not a bad password for a chess fan.
For cracking Ken Thompson’s chess opening password, Nigel Williams needed four days use his modern tools. Boris Grishenko, an antagonist of James Bond in “Golden Eye” (1995), of course, would have done much faster, even to impress his charming colleague Natalya Simonova. Here we see him at work.
Alan Cumming opposite Izabella Scorupco in the 1995 Bond film Golden Eye
Translation from German: Macauley Peterson