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Narrow-band voice encryption system

KY-9, also known as THESEUS, was a half-duplex 1 voice encryption system developed in the US in the late 1950s or the early 1960s. The devices were used for High Command joint circuits and were generally owned and maintained by the US Air Force, although some of them were installed at the US Navy and probably at other High Commands as well. The KY-9 was approved by the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) for all levels of classification [4] and was used until at least 1973.

The KY-9 was housed is a heavy metal safe that was usually placed in a closet or aside a desk. Inside the safe were four compartments, or quadrants, that housed the electronic circuits. The units in the upper two quadrants held the card readers that would take the cryptographic key on a Remmington Rand 2 computer punch card; one for transmission and one for reception.

The device is operated by means of a converted standard telephone set, that has extra buttons to initiate a secure conversation, and an integrated push-to-talk (PTT) switch 3 in the handset. The image on the right shows a typical KY-9 setup in an office, with the terminal on the desk. The safe measures 110 x 78 x 59 cm and weights no less than 256 kg. It is powered from the AC mains. In 1962, the price of a single init was US$ 105,000.

With the KY-9 it was not possible to recognise the voice of the person at the other end. With a bandwidth of just 1650 baud, the speech quality was rather low, resulting in a 'Donald Duck' style voice that was typical for the era's vocoders.
KY-9 with front door open. Photograph supplied by Nick England [3].

Unlike the HY-2 and the KY-3, the KY-9 was not constructed from modular electronic building blocks (the so-called FLYBALL modules), but rather with discrete components such as the 2N404 transistor. It entered service with the US Armed Forces in the late 1950s or early 1960s. Between 1963 and 1966 it was also used on a daily basis by the US Army in Berlin (Germany), for contact with the White House, whenever there were tensions with the Russians. The device was eventually succeeded by the HY-2 / KG-13 combination. The last units were phased out around 1973.

  1. Although the KY-9 datasheet states that the KY-9 is a half-duplex device [A], at least three of its former users seem to recall that it was a full-duplex system [1]. More on this subject below.
  2. Remington Rand computer punch cards have the same physical size as IBM cards, but have circular punched holes, rather than IBM's rectangular ones. The card readers are mounted vertically on the KY-9, whereas they are mounted horizontally on other machines.
  3. The PTT-switch was only used on half-duplex systems, or on full-duplex systems that were used in half-duplex mode, e.g. when using a low-quality telephone line or satellite link.

Presidential use
The KY-9 was also used directly by the President of the United States (POTUS), for direct secure communication with the Chiefs of Staff, but also with the British Prime Minister. US President John F. Kennedy used the KY-9 for the first time in September 1961 in a conversation with British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan. The device was guaranteed to be 100% secure [4]. Apart from the transatlantic link to the UK, Kennedy was also able to contact the following people directly:

  1. The Prime Minister
  2. U.S. Embassies
    1. London
    2. Paris
    3. United Nations (New York)
  3. Pentagon
    1. Chairman, JCS
    2. Chief of Staff, U.S. Army
    3. Chief of Naval Operations
    4. Chief of staff, U.S. Air Force
    5. Director, Joint Staff
    6. Joint War Room
    7. Air Force Command Post
  4. Continental U.S.
    1. CINCSAC 1
    4. Joint Alternate Command Element (Fort Ritchie)
  5. Overseas
    1. CINCAL (Alaska)
    2. USCINCEUR (France)
    3. CINCPAC (Hawaii)
  1. CINC = Commander in Chief.

Rumour has it that President John F. Kennedy was not impressed by the audio quality of the KY-9 and that people had trouble understanding him. Although it was the only solution available at the time that could be used on long-haul (narrow-band) networks, Kennedy eventually had the much better (wide-band) KY-3 installed for communications with some State Department officials.

Half-duplex or full-duplex
The KY-9 was initially specified as a half-duplex system. It was issued with a modified black telephone set with a dial and several extra buttons, and a push-to-talk (PTT) switch that was integrated in the handset. The user had to press the PTT switch when speaking, and had to release it in order to hear the other party. At least, this was the situation in 1962 [A]:

At least three former users however, recall that the KY-9 was a full-duplex system [1]. It is likely that this is correct and that the KY-9 was converted into a full-duplex device at some point, just like it was done later with the KY-3 during its development. As these users were trained on the machine in 1963, 1969 and 1973 respectively, it is possible that by that time the device had been upgraded, or that two of them were used in parallel. In the time frame 1963-1966, the link between Berlin (German) and the White House (Washington, USA) was definitely full-duplex [5].

  1. TSEC/KY-9 Datasheet
    CSP 6620A. Department of the Navy, September 1962. Obtained via [2].

  2. KAM-70, KY-9 Maintenace Manual (1)
    Confidential, Crypto.

  3. KAM-71, KY-9 Maintenace Manual (2)
    Confidential, Crypto.

  4. KAM-72, KY-9 Maintenace Manual (3)
    Confidential, Crypto.

  5. KAM-73, KY-9 Maintenace Manual (4)
    Confidential, Crypto.

  6. KAO-63, Operator's Manual
    Confidential, Crypto.

  7. KAO-65, Operator's Manual

  8. KAO-66, Operator's Manual
  1. Jerry Proc and contributors, KY-9
    Retrieved May 2016.

  2. Nick England, KY-9 datasheet
    Retrieved May 2016. Reproduced here by kind permission.

  3. Anonymous contributor, Photograph of KY-9 in operation
    Retrieved May 2016 via Nick England [2]. Reproduced here by kind permission.

  4. Tazewell T. Shepard, Jr., Memorandum for The President
    The Whitehouse, Washington. 18 September 1961. Retrieved June 2016. 1

  5. Anonymous contributor, Former user of KY-9 in Berlin (Germany)
    Personal correspondence, November 2017.
  1. Document kindly supplied by Peter Koop.

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Crypto Museum. Created: Thursday 12 May 2016. Last changed: Tuesday, 28 September 2021 - 15:11 CET.
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