DFIR Consultant Kat Hedley on Finding the History — and Future — of DFIR at Bletchley Park

Christa: The United Kingdom’s Bletchley Park is world renowned for its codebreakers’ role in shortening World War II by between two and four years, all by cracking codes the Germans used to communicate their plans.

This week on the Forensic Focus podcast, digital forensics consultant Kathryn Hedley joins us to talk about #Bricks4Codebreakers, a commemorative and fundraising drive benefiting Bletchley Park. I’m your podcast host, Christa Miller. Welcome, Kat!

Kat: Hello, thanks for having me.

Christa: Yeah, of course. Thanks for coming back on. I should mention we’re following up from an article that I wrote back in January 2021, I think right at the part of, a little bit halfway or just after the major fundraising effort. So this is kind of a followup.

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So I’m going to start at the very, very beginning. #Bricks4Codebreakers fundraising began in August 2020 as a way to save Bletchley Park, which had closed to the public because of the COVID-19 pandemic, obviously impacted the site’s revenue. What was important to you personally, Kat, about this particular organization? I think you had a family member that worked there?

Kat: So initially I didn’t know that. So —

Christa: Oh, cool!

Kat: Yeah. So yeah, when all this started, lockdown obviously happened in March 2020 as it did for most of the world. And it was really just, I’d been to the site a couple of times to see what they did there and what they did was amazing. Like people were literally sitting in what I would class as sheds — metal sheds.

Christa: Oh, wow.

Kat: Just breaking codes from the Germans and just trying to find ways to interpret those messages, to get intelligence, to be able to help with the war effort. And it was just amazing to me.

And the way that I saw it, obviously this was kind of the foundations of everything then that came after it with kind of modern computing. So I wouldn’t have a job because digital devices wouldn’t really exist without Bletchley Park.

So I kind of connected on that level, really, because I saw it as the foundation for my career and many of the friends that I have around in the industry. So I just kind of linked to it that way. And when ticket sales stopped, then they were making people redundant.

And when I’d been around the site in the past, anyway, there is still kind of large swathes of it that haven’t been restored. They’re just blocked off to the public. They’re crumbling, they’re falling apart. There’s literally trees growing through some of the buildings because they’ve never had enough money to restore all of the site. They’ve only restored a small part of it.

So really for me, it was like, well, I don’t want to lose the bit we do have. And it felt like a real risk of that happening. So that’s kind of why I kind of tried to do something, just to try and help with that situation. It just felt too important to lose it.

But when I announced that I was going to be to be doing this and raising some money for Bletchley Park, then it was actually when I announced the marathon that Sarah [Edwards] and I did on Christmas Eve in 2020, my aunt actually replied to that post and said, “Oh, this is great, because your grandmother used to work there during the war. She was a cook at Bletchley Park. So it’s amazing that you’re doing this.”

And I said, “What? Sorry, hang on. What?” So yeah, I had no idea that my grandmother worked at Bletchley Park. And since then we went and got all of her military records. We’ve had that verified with the Bletchley Park historian, and now I’ve actually bought an extra brick for my grandmother because we’ve verified, she was indeed a cook at Bletchley Park during the war.

Christa: Oh, I love it.

Kat: Which is just amazing. And it kind of, it was the cherry on top, really, with the fundraising.

Christa: Yeah. Yeah.

Kat: It did become really personal at that point in time. So yeah, that was a kind of cool, unusual, unexpected outcome that came out of the whole thing.

Christa: Yeah. It’s one of those things, like family lore that you can’t believe that you didn’t know about, but you’re happy that you did find out eventually, right?

Kat: Yeah. And I mean, it’s one of those things, isn’t it? They say that people who worked at Bletchley Park weren’t allowed to talk about it. So of course they went their entire lives, not talking about it.

So I kind of thought about it and thought, I’m kind of disappointed I didn’t get to speak to her about what she did and what she saw at Bletchley Park because obviously working in digital forensics, that would be amazing to be able to speak to somebody. She died in 2007, so I’ll never get that chance.

But I understand because I know, from visiting Bletchley Park and obviously listening to some of the historians’ talks, nobody was allowed to talk about anything. It was so ingrained that she would never have thought to mention it. So I get it. I just kind of wish I could talk to her now about those things.

Christa: Oh gosh. Yeah. Yeah. So I wanna back up a little bit, because you mentioned that you wouldn’t have your job and, and you know, many practitioners wouldn’t have jobs if it weren’t for the codebreakers’ work during World War II. Could you go into some more specifics about those foundations?

Kat: Yeah. So really, from my point of view, as I say, I work in digital forensics and I analyze electronic devices, digital devices, computers, smartphones, whatever that may be. And when I made that comment, I was really referring to the fact that Bletchley Park, particularly Tommy Flowers at Bletchley Park, invented the Colossus and that was the world’s first electronic computer, world’s first digital device that was built specifically to try and decipher the Lorenz Code that was being sent between Hitler and his generals. So it was a higher level of encryption than Enigma, which is the main thing they were, they were trying to break.

Christa: Right.

Kat: And Colossus was the way that they were able to automate, really, the process of decrypting those messages. So that was the first digital device. And that really paved the way for the entire field of digital computing and yeah, without digital devices, I don’t have a job. Anyone in information security doesn’t have a job.

It’s not just kind of modern day cryptographers or military personnel who can trace livelihoods back to Bletchley Park. It’s anyone, really, who uses a computer, uses a smartphone as part of that day job, because that literally does trace back to Colossus invented by Tommy Flowers. So yeah, that’s kind of what I meant by that comment.

Christa: Okay. Okay. Do you have any insights? Because, I mean, we’re bearing witness right now to, really, a fight for survival that I think a lot of of Brits in particular can relate to after the Blitz of 1940-1941. And I’m referring of course to Ukraine’s fight for survival. Do you have any insights on the codebreaking work itself? Like what kind of foundation it would’ve laid for modern warfare tactics, modern code breaking?

Kat: So I think there’s a lot of work that was done at Bletchley Park that kind of feeds into all sorts of stuff going on in the world today. Ukraine is obviously one example at the moment, a lot of Ukraine’s war, from what I’m hearing in the news — obviously I’m not directly involved in any of it, but reading kind of news articles — there’s a lot of stuff happening in the cyber world. You have different groups aligning themselves to one side or the other, attacking each other, taking down websites, stealing data, leaking information.

All of those kind of things we normally see in cybersecurity, but specifically relating to governments on both sides and in other areas relating to the war. So I mean, all of that, I guess, directly comes from the work at Bletchley Park, in the fact that computers are being used for it, cybersecurity wouldn’t exist without obviously modern computing.

And really Bletchley Park made massive leaps forward in cryptanalysis, in mathematics, in just how we try and analyze language to try and break the codes, because it wasn’t the encryption they broke at Bletchley Park. They were looking at basically pattern analysis, looking at keywords that were used in each of these messages to try and — it’s human weakness, trying to identify the weakness to then be able to decrypt the messages.

So with Enigma, the Germans used to end most of their messages with “Heil Hitler.” They worked this out; that then gave them some letters to try and then break the rest of the code. So it was about known plain text working forwards to try and break it. And that is still a technique that’s used today as we go forward.

So, yeah, lots and lots, I think, of foundations, lots of strides forward. And yeah, I mean, who knows what’s really going on at the moment in the world. But I imagine a lot of that is helping, and is being used in both sides, I expect.

Christa: That’s fascinating. It’s something, I mean, it’s been almost a hundred years and it’s really striking that that it’s still just as relevant now as ever.

Kat: Yeah, absolutely. Unfortunately. I mean, I wish it wasn’t.

Christa: No, I know. I know I’m going to date myself, but I mean, I came of age in the 90s and you know, we thought that all this stuff was over for good and it’s not, so yeah.

Kat: Yeah. Absolutely.

Christa: Yeah. So I wanna turn to the actual fundraiser. So the original was created in, again, summer 2020 as part of the #DFIRforGood movement. At that point, I remember you mentioned in our interview, before that you had raised funds for 38 bricks, commemorative bricks, in total. So I wondered how many people ended up contributing? How did this roll over into 2021? How many people contributed last year, and how many new bricks have been added to the Codebreakers’ Wall since then?

Kat: So we’ve purchased 39 bricks so far in total. We had 20 bricks purchased under the original campaign. We had six individuals buying entire bricks.

Christa: Wow!

Kat: And we then collectively had 13 people who signed up for — we did something called the Codebreakers’ Challenge. So that was a virtual #DFIRfit walk, run, however you wanted to do it. And it was a number of miles between Bletchley Park and Cheltenham, because Bletchley Park became GCHQ used to be GCCH, I think there was another name for it.

But eventually that kind of was formed into, what we have in the UK is GCHQ. So we had it as the distance between Milton Keynes and Cheltenham, which is where those two are. So we had 13 people who signed up for that virtual race.

We also had some #DFIRfit4BP, which is the hashtag we used, some t-shirts and things like that, that we put together with the permission of the Bletchley Park fundraising team, who we worked closely with to make sure we were doing everything properly. Because we can’t sell anything with any kind of Bletchley Park kind of logos or anything like that. It had to be entirely separate.

So we made sure we did all of that properly and collectively with all of that, we were able purchase the first 20 bricks. Sarah Edwards and I then did the marathon on Christmas Eve 2020, and then didn’t move for two weeks afterwards. But as part of that we were able to buy another 18 bricks because we had incredible 43 donations to that particular campaign, which just exceeded all of my expectations. It was absolutely amazing.

So, yeah, so that was kind of the 38 initially. I then purchased an extra one for my grandmother after I had it verified that she did work there. And I went to see them all last year. So they all went up last year. They are there on the wall. I took photos and put them on Twitter to prove it.

Christa: I saw that. Yeah.

Kat: Which was, yeah, amazing to see them all in place. So yeah, that was what we did. And that was all really in 2020, the last one was 2021, and we’ve kind of paused since then.

So since then, or rather kind of at the same time, there have been other — there’s been other funding. So initially Bletchley Park was closed for a few months in lockdown, but as the pandemic has worn on, they have been able to reopen.

So they have been able to sell tickets and done better because most of their funding, or a lot of their funding, comes from visitors. They have also had an injection of cash from Facebook, actually a million pounds from Facebook. And they’ve had 1.6 million from the government. The government has a cultural recovery fund. So over the last two years, they’ve had 1.6 million from them as well. So they are in a better place now.

Saying that, I’m sure they will always appreciate more donations and want people to go and visit. But we kind of paused because they were, I guess, not — no longer at risk of closing down. So yeah, it was less urgent, I guess, at that point. And we kind of paused at that stage.

Christa: Okay. I think that, you know, the timing of this podcast comes — DFRWS, the Digital Forensics Research Workshop, is providing a visit for — or, provided a visit for attendees in April. And I’m looking on their website in preparation, I noticed that there are new exhibits, so obviously yes they survived.

So the fundraiser, one thing I noticed in your fundraiser is you mentioned that the current Codebreakers’ Wall, the physical space, is too small to accommodate all 13,651 Codebreakers who are recognized on the Roll of Honour. Do you know if there’s been any movement towards expanding the wall itself?

Kat: Not at the moment. So with this, this was when I decided I’d like to try and raise some money; I decided at the same time that it would be really nice if all of the veterans who served at Bletchley Park could have their own brick, their own kind of personal recognition of the work that they did there.

It took quite a bit, well it took some scripting, let’s say, to grab all of the names of the people who are recognized and verified as having served there. And that’s where I came up with the number 13,651. That’s not official from Bletchley Park. That’s just me trying to, yeah, basically put numbers together based on the list that they have on the website.

Christa: Okay.

Kat: So that’s an estimate, is kind of the point I was getting across, but yes, there — I believe there are about 13 and a half thousand veterans, and I think there’s only space for about 4,000 on the current wall. So yeah, that’s kind of where that rough mathematics came from and at the moment, “no” is the short answer.

I did reach out to the Bletchley Park team and said, “What would your appetite be to extending it?” They were actually incredibly open to the idea. So I think the main issue at the moment is most of, well, at least half of the wall, just over half of the current wall is still empty.

So they won’t, I expect, be considering expanding it until the current wall is filled. But if that current wall was to be filled, then I think they would be open to those discussions and to trying to build some other wall somewhere to try and add more veterans in.

And yeah, I would absolutely love it if we, or just as a global community could get to the point where that happens. And I say, I would absolutely love it if every veteran could have their own brick, but yeah. Unfortunately at the moment, we’re not quite there yet, but maybe at some point in the future.

Christa: OK. So kind of on that note I know #DFIRfit4Good raised money for other organizations besides Bletchley Park. So Play Like a Girl, Middle Tennessee Emergency Response Fund, the Gates Foundation combating COVID-19, Girls Who Code.

So your fundraising, it kind of struck me as representing past and future. And I do want to note that 75% of the people who worked at Bletchley Park were women. What is important for new analysts and students, especially, to take away from these efforts?

Kat: Yeah, so I think, I mean the war effort as a whole, not just Bletchley Park, really kind of brought women into the workplace and really proved that women are just as capable as men when it comes to these things. And I’m very glad in — not glad that the war happened, but glad that at least it kind of made that change and moving forward.

And we have, I think, come a long way since then in terms of diversity and equality. We are not there yet. As a global community of humans, we still have a long way to go when it comes to inclusion, diversity, and all of those issues, not just [the] infosec space.

As I say, everything is a work in progress, but personally I think we are getting there slowly. And from my experience so far, so I’ve been working in forensics for 14 years now. And #DFIRfit I’ve been involved in for probably three, four years. And from my experience, I think generally the field is really friendly, really welcoming, really inclusive bunch.

And I think that has always been the case, but is also improving as we move forward and things like — so yeah, Play Like a Girl we’ve funded a few times, particularly through the Magnet User Summit #DFIRfit stuff that we’re doing.

And other, Girls Who Code, all of these things, trying to focus on encouraging more diversity, more inclusion, more girls to come into technical fields and as a wider community as well, just trying to improve everything from there. So I know other initiatives have taken place as well.

Things like mentoring to try and encourage more minority groups to get involved as well. And I would say to anyone looking to come into the field, to join #DFIRfit, to work in infosec, whatever it may be, first of all, welcome to the community, because I would hope you would always be welcome, certainly in our community, you definitely would be. Do join in, do contact people, reach out, say hi, get involved.

If you see and hear anything you’re not comfortable with, I would hope that we’re now at a point where speaking up will make a difference. Certainly more people seem kind of willing to enact change, make a difference and listen to issues and try and fix them moving forward.

So I think hopefully we can continue to work together in the field to improve it, make it a great space to work and collaborate. So do it! Join us. I think, I say the war efforts were the first step. I think we have built on them moving forward and I hope we continue to do that.

Christa: Yeah, I think I’m just, as you’re talking, thinking about all of the people that worked at Bletchley Park would have… the work that they did would not have been possible if they worked in a toxic work environment, honestly, which I think a lot of people have encountered in the years since. And so, really, I guess, taking their example, thinking of their example and going forward to actually get work done, good work done,, is really the key there.

Kat: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, if you look at, they weren’t meant to take photos at Bletchley Park, however many people disobeyed the rules. And that means we do now have some photographs of actually what we life was like in Bletchley Park.

So if you do go over to visit, have a look at those photos and yeah, it really does show that they just got along. Like, it was basically one big family and they all — There were issues, don’t get me wrong. Alan Turing used to chain his mug to a radiator so that it wasn’t stolen, for example.

But yeah. And of course Alan Turing himself obviously had a lot of issues after he left, actually, Bletchley Park. And the government has since apologized for that, thankfully. It was too late, it should never have happened, obviously. So yes. But I hope we’ve at least learnt from all of those experiences now. I think before the war and after the war were a completely different environment and yes, toxic is probably the right word for it.

But yeah, I hope it’s a different place now and we can all take away the example that they showed during the war. It tends to be the case, I think, during the war you can see in Ukraine now in shelters, everything people are just pulling together. You’ve got restaurants giving away food for free because people need food and war does, I think, tend to bring people together. It’s one of the few good things that comes out of war. Still wish it would never be happening, but yeah, we can at least take — if we could just take that and apply that to the rest of the world, then we’d be in a much better place.

Christa: Yes, for sure. Instead of, yeah, I feel like in peacetime, there’s almost — we don’t — we almost, as humans, don’t know what to do with ourselves without conflict, and I almost think that’s where some toxic environments come from. So yeah, if we could find that solidarity within us, even during peacetime, then that would be a great start.

Kat: It would, I agree.

Christa: Yeah. Well Kat, thank you again for joining us on the Forensic Focus podcast.

Kat: No worries. Thank you for having me.

Christa: Thanks also to our listeners. You’ll be able to find this recording and transcription, along with more articles, information and forums at www.forensicfocus.com. Stay safe and well.

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