Bletchley Park and HP to put secret WWII data online

Summary:Thousands of documents relating to intercepted wartime German messages are to be scanned and put online, using technology donated by HP

Britain's World War II code-breaking centre is to put all of its wartime intercepted information online.

Bletchley Park is to scan the original indexing cards used to correlate information from intercepted and decrypted enemy communications, plus other data. The museum will use document-scanning equipment and software donated by HP. The information — code-named Ultra and one of the Allies' biggest wartime secrets — was largely gathered from radio interceptions of messages encoded in Enigma, Lorenz and other cyphers and machine-decoded by mechanical and electronic means such as the Colossus computer.

"We've got thousands of card indexes on different subject matter, handwritten by different people in different coloured ink," Bletchley Park Trust director Simon Greenish told ZDNet UK on Monday. "The object is to enable people to look at the original documents in scanned form."

Greenish described the card indexes as "a paper database". Information was grouped on the cards under headings.

"One of the cards — labelled 'diamonds' — contains information about diamond purchasing for the German war effort," said Greenish. "One consignment of diamonds that was received in Germany was rejected because it was below standard."

In addition to the cards, there are log-books containing the original typescript of intercepted German messages, which were then handed to translators.

"We have three fairly large rooms stacked floor-to-ceiling and wall-to-wall [of books and cards]," said Greenish.

Bletchley Park is looking for volunteers to help scan the data. HP will provide training in the software and ongoing digital support.

Documents will be scanned, and the pages will likely be uploaded with metadata attached to allow for searches, said Greenish. Optical character recognition, which turns scanned body copy into searchable text, may also be possible, said Greenish.

However, Bletchley Park has not yet tested the software or written the protocols.

Greenish said the work of scanning the documents would begin in the early autumn, once volunteers have been trained by HP. He expects the scanning work to take five years.

Government signals intelligence agency GCHQ will have an advisory role concerning the information published. Greenish said GCHQ does not have any security concerns about the messages themselves, but the department is concerned about the people involved at Bletchley Park who are still alive.

"I'd be surprised if there's any sensitive data, but it's possible that some could come under the Official Secrets Act," said Greenish. "[GCHQ] has been through it all, and I don't think there is."

Topics: Security

About

Tom is a technology reporter for ZDNet.com, writing about all manner of security and open-source issues.Tom had various jobs after leaving university, including working for a company that hired out computers as props for films and television, and a role turning the entire back catalogue of a publisher into e-books.Tom eventually found tha... Full Bio

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