October 2019: U.S. Punched Tape Crypto Keys Retired

Computer Business Review ran a fairly low-profile story of historic significance

…agency spokesman confirmed to Computer Business Review that the last NSA punched tape key had rolled off its machines on October 2, 2019. Such keys were used to encrypt military and other communications, and needed to be physically entered into devices that could store the key, then shipped around the world.

The technology, which uses paper-mylar-paper tape rolls punched with holes to store cryptographic keys (a hole represents a binary 1, and the absence of a hole a binary 0) remains in use in the UK, particularly by the Ministry of Defence.

The NSA only confirmed the end of the programme and declined to provide an image of the now obsolete kit.

The agency declined to provide an image, there are plenty to be found of ROCKEX, the punched tape crypto system essential to winning WWII

It also signals here a more successful project than ten years ago when an “overly ambitious and poorly executed” attempt was reported as “came to a crashing end“.

Difficulty in ending tape still plagues the UK, and they have worries about the public shame of it.

“The authority has a huge challenge to produce all those keys and then it’s got a challenge to distribute and install them all. I won’t describe what happens. But if Joe Public knew, you would think this was all a bit 1960s really.”

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