Pssst! Got a secret? The Canada Science and Technology Museum’s Cipher | Decipher

An Enigma machine from a German submarine.


Published Date: Mar 20, 2019

Photo: This Enigma machine was retrieved from a German submarine. It is on loan from the Communications Security Establishment and displayed in Cipher | Decipher. Photo: Pierre Martin (Ingenium – Canada’s Museums of Science and Innovation).

Cipher | Decipher is an exhibition about using ciphers to keep secrets safe. Developed by the Canada Science and Technology Museum (CSTM) in partnership with the Communications Security Establishment (CSE), this travelling exhibition makes the complicated and serious subject of communications encryption accessible and fun. The thematically organized exhibition places historical and contemporary examples of secret keeping (and acquiring) side by side, and underscores the need for individuals, as well as states, to protect their communications.

Cryptology, the study of creating and cracking ciphers, is a tricky subject to address in an exhibition. Not only are the ideas often difficult, but many of the contemporary concepts are locked inside black boxes or hidden in the ether. In Cipher | Decipher, colourful illustrations stand in for impenetrable digital technologies and explain complex events and situations. Interactives help clarify some of the tough concepts. In Got a Secret?, the exhibition’s introduction, visitors puzzle through the basic parts of a cipher on a giant cipher wheel. Here, the cipher algorithm (the process for scrambling a plain text message) is shifting the alphabet so that one letter substitutes for another, and the cipher key (the parameters for the process) determines by how much the alphabet shifts.

The body of the exhibition – Secret Messages – considers secrets both from the perspective of those attempting to keep communications confidential and those seeking to uncover other people’s private messages. In keeping with the CSTM’s special position as an institution that demystifies how things work while demonstrating their cultural and historical significance, this section breaks down technological mechanisms in the context of why visitors should care about them. Secret Messages features artifacts that visitors will likely have heard of, but only seen in films and books. Made famous by Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley in The Imitation Game, the Enigma is a complex electro-mechanical cipher machine used by Germany to protect top-secret communications during the Second World War. In our exhibit, to untangle the workings of this cipher machine, visitors trace how the Enigma scrambles messages on a nearby digital interactive. Deconstructed parts of Typex, a cipher machine with which Canada and Britain encrypted messages from the Second World War until the 1960s, accompany the Enigma and reveal the internal composition of these machines. All exhibited artifacts come from the CSE’s collection, which is not regularly accessible to the general public.

Visitors learn how to scramble and unscramble secret messages on the exhibition’s giant cipher wheel. Photo: Pierre Martin (Ingenium – Canada’s Museums of Science and Innovation).

Encryption abounds in the contemporary world and Cipher | Decipher does not neglect digital technology. Illustrations depict how Transport Layer Security protects secrets sent through email, and portray hackers following the online activities of people who protect their Wi-Fi with weak ciphers. An amusing, recurring character, the Cyber Snoop, plays the villain in these graphics and is the main character in Privacy in a Connected World. While encryption protects many of our online activities, cyber snoops search for ways around our ciphers. The interactive in this section asks visitors to think about how their choices protect, or risk, their online privacy. With each bad choice, the Cyber Snoop creeps further into visitors’ lives.

The CSTM strives to inspire Canadians to engage with their scientific and technological past and future. The Are You a Cipher Sleuth? section of Cipher | Decipher playfully encourages visitors to consider their future in the field of cryptology. Since puzzles can be a good indicator of aptitude for creating and cracking ciphers, this section tests visitors’ logic, creative problem-solving, imaginative thinking and spatial awareness through an array of brainteasers. Individuals often work as part of a group to complete these games. Interestingly, a visitor’s age does not predict their success at these challenges.

Cipher | Decipher is aimed at families with children aged eight plus, but includes activities that are also accessible to a younger audience. The Cracking Ciphers interactives contrast two methods that people employ to unscramble the encrypted secrets of others. In a brute force attack, a person (or computer) runs through all of the possible keys, looking for the one that will crack the cipher. Given enough time, any cipher can be unlocked this way. People also undo scrambled messages by finding patterns, which act as clues, in the cipher text. In the associated interactives, visitors identify patterns and race the clock to find the right key among many.

Cipher | Decipher is currently touring. For dates and locations, see

Deconstructed rotor cores for Typex cipher machine.

Deconstructed rotor cores for Typex cipher machines, on loan from the Communications Security Establishment and on display in Cipher | Decipher. Canada and Britain encrypted messages with Typex machines from the Second World War until the 1960s. Photo: Pierre Martin (Ingenium – Canada’s Museums of Science and Innovation).