Biscuts, footballs, and a secret.

I’m sure everyone has seen pop culture references to the “nuclear football”, a.k.a. the briefcase kept near the U.S. President that would be used if an emergency nuclear attack were required.

I was thinking about security this morning — codes and keys. Maybe it’s all the political discussion lately, but my mind went to the nuclear football, and the security involved. There’s the obvious large-and-armed-guy handcuffed to the briefcase (which isn’t true, mind you — it’s a small black cable). Obviously I have no special experience in this area, so this is clearly all speculation based on some Googling.

Turns out there’s an interesting amount of information on this topic. Everyone’s favorite source, Wikipedia, has a few interesting articles. There’s one discussing the nuclear football (which actually does not contain codes); the “biscuit” (which does contain a code, but not a launch code); and the security clearance required for the guy who carries the football — Yankee White.

The government is often lampooned as incompetent. But, there’s a few things that they do quite well. For instance, pop culture talks about the “nuclear football” which contains launch codes. It doesn’t. And if you think about it, it wouldn’t make sense to carry actual launch codes. Those are just some ones and zeros that probably get carried along a physical cable to the missiles.

The football is actually a very nice briefcase, filled with some sheets of paper with response plans, a really good cell phone (ok, ok, secure satellite phone), and a few other useful goodies. Hopefully a Snickers, too. You don’t want the President making important decisions on an empty stomach, do you?

Instead of the briefcase containing codes, the code involved is physically kept by the President. Carter kept it in his jacket. Bush Sr. kept it in his wallet. (Side thought: Presidents carry wallets? For their cash?). Also, it’s not a *launch code*. It’s an identification code — a way to verify that the voice ordering a launch on the phone is actually the President. Apparently the last 4 digits of their social security number, along with their mother’s maiden name, wasn’t good enough.

The code is changed daily, and is issued by the National Security Agency. Which brings me to the point that started all of this. What do the codes look like?

In cryptography, you want insane combinations of numbers, letters, and symbols (“Why do cryptography experts get excited about prime numbers?“). But, this code has to be easily spoken via phone. No doubt, you’d like a certain about of uniqueness. Also, it should be something that could be understood when spoken over low-quality audio. You never know when those sat phones will get scratchy-sounding (“I can’t hear you! I’m in a tunnel!”).

Of course, it’s probably safe to say that with Bush Jr, the codes are chosen via a top secret, customized See ‘n Say.

So, we’ve got our requirements list:

  • able to be generated daily
  • robust sounding (can be understood over a bad satellite connection, if needed)
  • easily spoken via phone (not containing symbols, “QzE#j&^b%%”)
  • unique, unmistakable (unlikely to be accidentally spoken)
  • fit on a card (I’m thinking credit card-size)

I personally suspect the codes come in the form of some NSA-level Mad Libs. That is to say, they are probably syntactically valid, interpretable English, but otherwise nonsense. Short sentences that have no real meaning, like

“Three pigs post drywall notes”

“Violet books have hunted chocolate rain”

Codes of this form have the advantage that they can be question-responsed with normal ideas. “I’m sorry, how many pigs were there?” “What color books?”. These are good questions, much easier than asking “What was the fifth letter?” for a code of “5X7b9lOc”

No one will ever accidentally say these codes. Imagine the confusion if a code were “I’d like a bacon cheeseburger”.

So, that ends my thought experiment for the day. Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments.

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