'Fallout 76' Players Are Breaking Nuclear Launch Code Cryptography to Unleash Hell
If this is the security the ‘Fallout’ world used to protect its ICBMs, no wonder it perished in nuclear war.
Fallout 76 allows players to work together to gather nuclear launch codes and activate ICBMs. There are three silos in the wastelands of West Virginia where Fallout 76 is set, and industrious players can hurl nuclear fire at rival groups to wipe them off the map and spawn endgame content.
The “nuke loop,” as developer Bethesda calls it, was envisioned as a difficult puzzle players would work through towards the end of their time with the game. But players acted quickly and launched their first nuke during the game’s beta phase. Nukes started flying across the map soon after the game’s initial release, and players have even coordinated the launch of three simultaneous nuclear blasts, which crashed the server.
Nuclear weapons—the most destructive human invention on planet Earth—are easy to use in Fallout 76. Players need to acquire launch codes from various monsters that make up a cryptogram they then decode to launch the nukes. The problem is that, at the moment, this cryptogram is easily solved, allowing players to cheat the system to launch so many nukes they can break the game. It's a great lesson for why the codes that launch real nuclear weapons need to be strongly protected.
The tangle of random letters that makes up the cryptogram seem complicated at first, but solving them is simple. “It's a simple combination of substitution cipher and permutation,” Philip Zimmermann, the creator of Pretty Good Privacy encryption and anti-nuclear war activist, told me over the phone.
There are three nuclear silos in Fallout 76. To launch a nuke, players have to fight through a dungeon and input an eight-digit code into a computer terminal, then select a target. The road to collecting those eight-digit codes is a bit complicated, and they reset every week. It all begins by collecting eight nuclear codes from monsters across the map. These codes are always a letter and a number—I7, K9, F6—and work for one of the three silos. Those numbers, once put in the correct order, will give players the eight-digit code they need to launch a nuke. Getting them in the right order requires a little cryptography. Players have to grab eight codes that work for one specific silo. Once players have the letters, they have to get a code word to help them decode the next part of the puzzle.
The code word is time-gated and revealed slowly on a screen in Whitespring Bunker in Fallout 76—letters in the word are revealed slowly throughout the week until the code word is complete.
Here, things get a little complicated. Thankfully, Reddit user SaukPuhpet has a great breakdown of the process using the code word WHITEBOARDS. Once players know the full word, they take all of its letters and remove them from the alphabet. The alphabet with WHITEBOARDS removed is CFGJKLMNPQUVXYZ. The code word, followed by the remaining letters of the alphabet in order (WHITEBOARDSCFGJKLMNPQUVXYZ, in this case), act as a key for the initial eight nuclear launch codes.
Players take their eight codes and run them through the new alphabet to get a new string of eight letters. In the above example, a player would take the F pictured in the screenshot above, which sits at the 13th place in the code word string. The 13th letter of the real alphabet is M. So your F is now an M. Run all eight letters through the code word string and you get a jumble of new letters that form an anagram. That anagram needs to be descrambled to find a real word.
Unscrambling that real word will put the eight nuclear codes in order, and reveal the proper sequence of the numbers attached to them. It’s that eight digit code players need to input into a computer terminal to launch the nukes.
It's a complicated process, but it's a riddle that's Bethesda designed for players to solve. “What you're trying to do in the game is make something that someone could reasonably solve with pencil and paper and so you have to keep it simple,” Zimmermann said.
Players have already created a number of tools to streamline this process. The most time consuming part is waiting for the revelation of the key word, but a Reddit user named Waffle_cop has already built a program called Nukacrypt that will generate strings of possible numbers based on the letters already revealed. Nukacrypt allows players to both skip the hassle of working out these problems longhand and generates possible launch codes before the week's full keyword is fully revealed. Essentially, players are partially hacking through what little protection Bethesda put around the codes to get nukes faster.
“I wouldn’t say it was too complicated,” Waffle_cop told me on Reddit. “I spend a lot of time completing programming puzzles, so this was just another puzzle. I built it so that I could be the first person to drop a nuke on live servers, a race to be the first. I realized however that this could be a great community tool, helping others achieve the end game quests.”
With a list of numbers to try, players can approach the nuclear launch keypad and enter in numbers until they hit the right sequence and launch a nuke. Every attempt requires a nuclear keycard that’s consumed regardless of whether the nuke fires, but the keycards are not that hard to acquire—players have to down a flying cargobot and pick a lock on its corpse to grab a keycard. Players are already walking into nuclear silos armed with a pile of them to burn through.
Each silo has one code that works for a week. It’s the same code across all servers and players like Waffle_cop are sharing the codes once they’re discovered.
“I will likely continue to post the codes as I find them myself or confirm with another player that has found one,” he said. “I may adjust the website to also display already solved codes so that players do not have to solve for them.”
It’s not exactly a secure system for launching nukes, so it's wonder the world of Fallout perished in nuclear hellfire.
In the real United States, there have always been security locks in place to prevent anyone but the highest authority from launching America’s nuclear weapons. The earliest version of these were simple locks on the nukes themselves bypassed by a three-digit key. The cryptography grew more complicated over time, eventually replaced by a system called permissive action link (PAL). “It was a 24 bit key, a cryptographic key, that was used to encrypt everything,” Zimmermann told me.
This 24 bit key changed daily. If the president ordered a nuclear attack, “the launch control officer would open his safe and pull out a binder with information about what his key should be for each day,” Zimmermann said. “He would compare it and, if it matches, he would proceed.”
The Pentagon didn’t exactly live up to the spirit of the anti-tamper measures. Until 1977, military leaders interceded and set the complicated PAL codes to eight zeroes across all systems. Nuclear launches have gotten much more complicated since the early days of the Cold War and permissive action link.
Today, the president needs two codes to authorize the launch of a nuke. The first is a gold code printed on a laminated piece of paper called “the biscuit.” The National Security Agency generates new gold codes daily and each biscuit contains a gold code in a swath of gibberish. The President must memorize the location of the gold code within this sea of nonsense in order to confirm his identity with nuclear command and control and begin the process of launching nuclear weapons.
Some things didn’t change from the old days. At this stage, the launch itself is controlled by five teams of two military officers. Those ten officers must turn their keys simultaneously to “vote” to launch the missile. After all the cryptography, and communication, a US nuclear missile will only launch if at least two of the five teams “vote” to arm and launch the missile.
This process obviously wouldn't work for a video game, but Fallout 76 players are already breaking what little safeguards are in the game to unleash nuclear hell. In my time with it, I’ve already had to server hop several times to avoid nuclear detonations near an area I was questing in. It’s just another issue in a game rife with bugs, broken quests, and server issues.
Initiating nuclear war in the real world is, thankfully, far more complicated than it is in Fallout 76. “For a game they don’t have to make it real,” Zimmermann said. “They wanna let people try to break codes for fun.”