The History and Mathematics of Codes and Code Breaking

Course Feedback

Near the end of the fall 2015 semester, I asked students in this course to provide some feedback on the course through an anonymous online survey. I thought I would share a few highlights from that survey here on the blog for past and future students.

Course Activities. On the survey, I asked students to rate various course activities as useful (or not) to their learning. The activities rated most useful to student learning were:

  • reading the textbook (The Code Book by Simon Singh),
  • blogging about the readings prior to class,
  • reading peers' blog posts,
  • discussing the readings during class,
  • working through the problem sets,
  • studying for the math exam, and
  • writing papers.

Activities that were rated less useful included reading Little Brother by Cory Doctorow, exploring peer contributions to the class bookmark group on Diigo, and making use of the class timeline on the history of cryptography. Each of these activities were seen as useful by some students, but were not rated as universally useful as the activities listed above.

My takeaway? See if I can integrate the bookmarking and timeline activities more into major course assignments, so that those elements of the course are more useful to future students.

Classroom Activities. I also asked student to rate the usefulness of select in-class activities to their learning. Top of this list were:

  • working through math and crypto problems during class,
  • spending class time workshopping paper drafts,
  • analyzing papers written by students during previous offerings of the course,
  • discussing a single student's draft paper using clickers and a rubric,
  • hearing from guest speaker and cryptographer Elonka Dunin,
  • building a "security vs. privacy" debate map collaboratively using Post-it notes, and
  • learning how to send encrypted emails.

Less useful activities (again, useful to some, but not useful across the board) included using clicker questions to explore academic integrity issues, reading and commenting on peers' blog posts during class, and debating "security vs. privacy" by role-playing various expert perspectives.

My takeaways? Since most of the "most useful" activities are ones I've used multiple times, continue to refine my lesson plans each time I teach the course to improve individual activities. And continue to approach my lesson plans with as much creativity as I can muster!

Advice to Future Students. What advice would my fall 2015 students offer to a student who plans to enroll in and hopes to do well in this course? Here's a selection:

  • "Do ALL of the reading, and PARTICIPATE. This class is amazing, informative, and very interesting, but only if you actually take part."
  • "I would advise them to put in the effort necessary to do well in the course. It is a very rewarding course, but it does require a lot of work."
  • "Keep on top of the math, and even when working through problem sets with friends, make sure you can do it on your own. Always, always ask questions."
  • "I would advise the student to keep an open mind when approaching the security vs. privacy issue, as their mind may change throughout the course as they continue to learn more about cryptography."
  • "I would tell the student to keep up on the Singh reading, and give themselves enough time not only to read what is written but also to go over it a few times to understand the math behind it."
  • "I would tell them to work the problem sets both by themselves and with a group as both are helpful in different ways."
  • "Make sure to read the required readings, and don't procrastinate on the papers."
  • "I would tell them to continuously watch for cryptography examples both in the news and in their everyday lives, as it plays a much bigger role than I could have ever imagined before taking the course."

My takeaway? I'll definitely share this advice with my next group of students!

Suggestions. Students provided a number of suggestions for future offerings of the course. Below are a few of them, with my thoughts in parentheses.

  • "I think that it's important to spend a little more time on Little Brother. It seemed less like a part of the course and more like a short break from the course." (This comment came up more than once in the feedback. I'll see what I can do next time to integrate the novel more in the course.)
  • "Because our question of security vs. privacy was evident throughout the semester, I think a debate would be an effective addition to the course." (We had a very fun "security vs. privacy" debate in the 2014 offering of the course. I'll probably bring that back in future offerings.)
  • "Using different forms of media to express our own views was helpful, but maybe looking more into the opinions of others in the field on social media would be just as helpful." (Since this course is a first-year writing seminar, I'm required to ask students to write a lot. That's not to say, however, that I couldn't work maybe one multimedia assignment into the syllabus! And it's been a goal for a few years now to build in a few Twitter assignments to the course. Next time!)
  • "Our class very early on began collaborating naturally, but I would suggest in the coming years to recommend this to your students as I personally found it very helpful ." (I was frankly amazed at how naturally the fall 2015 students started working together outside of class on problem sets. I think a few of them probably should have also visited my office hours from time time, but, in general, the out-of-class collaboration was a success. I'll continue to encourage this in the future, perhaps even suggesting GroupMe as a way to get organized.)
  • "More blogs but with less emphasis on each one (e.g. not having other students critique them) so students can feel more comfortable/less pressure writing them." (I saw the blog assignments as fairly low-stakes, informal writing, but it would seem that this student, at least, felt differently. I might try to handle the peer review piece of the class differently in the future, emphasizing its role in preparing students for later, higher-stakes writing assignments. Or bring in Twitter for shorter, more frequently, very informal writing assignments.)
  • "Perhaps you could give an assignment where each student chooses a cipher that hasn't been discussed yet and writes about it in detail." (This was a paper assignment in each of the previous iterations of the course! It's a great assignment, but I felt that it needed a break, mainly because many of the good cipher choices have been covered by students in their Wonders & Marvels essays.)
  • "I think there could be a harder push towards writing on very unique subjects; this way we can explore what might be very interesting to us individually." (Good point. Without the paper assignment described above, the course had a little less freedom for students to explore topics of personal interest. I'll see if I can rebalance this aspect of paper assignments next time.)
  • "I personally wasn't a fan of the first paper... not sure why but I think it was kind of hard to be confined to the opinions of the 3 articles we had to choose from." (Another vote for a little more freedom to explore topics! I'll definitely build in more of this next time.)

Thanks to my students for providing such useful feedback. I'll be sure to review all the feedback when I return to this course in the future.

Paper #4 - Security vs. Privacy

For your final paper, you’ll tackle the cryptography question of our time: security vs. privacy. Should our government be given wide latitude to use electronic surveillance in the interests of national security, even if that means citizens’ privacy is not always respected? This is a question we’ve explored in every offering of this course. Thanks to Edward Snowden’s 2013 revelations about the National Security Agency, it’s now part of our national dialogue. We have explored this question from many angles this semester. This paper is your opportunity to spend time thinking critically about the question and crafting a well-supported answer.

Actually, the question above is just one way to frame the topic. You’re welcome to respond to that very question, but you’re also welcome to go in some other direction. You might propose something very concrete, perhaps a response to the recent Paris attacks, or you could take a more abstract approach and analyze the rhetoric used in this debate (“security”? “versus”?). You could look broadly at securing the US from terror attacks, or you could shift the focus to a different context—say, surveillance in schools. Your task is to come up with an interesting thesis that addresses some aspect of the security, privacy, and surveillance discussion, then defend your thesis with arguments and evidence.

You’re welcome to use our Diigo group as a source of ideas, examples, and evidence. You’re also welcome to bookmark new sources to the group as you work on your paper. Although you’re not allowed to collaborate on writing your papers, sharing sources via Diigo is approved and encouraged.

Your paper will be graded on the strength and clarity of your arguments, as well as the quality of your sources. See the rubric for details.


Your paper should be between 1,500 and 2,000 words in length, and it should use American Psychological Association (APA) formatting for citations and references. Citations appear within the text of your paper, references at the end. Both should be properly formatted. See Purdue University’s Online Writing Lab,, for a useful guide to APA formatting.


You aren’t required to turn in an outline or rough draft of your paper, although if you send me an outline or draft by Monday, December 14th, I’ll give you a little feedback.

Your final paper is due via Blackboard by 11:59 p.m. on Wednesday, December 16th.


Please familiarize yourself with Vanderbilt’s Honor System. I’m encouraging a lot of sharing and collaboration in this course, but your work on your paper assignments should be your own. Please be careful not to plagiarize. The Writing Studio has a great set of resources on working with sources in academic writing ( We’ll spend some class time exploring plagiarism and academic integrity more generally.

If your life is falling apart and you are tempted to plagiarize to save time or get a good grade, please see me instead. I would rather grant you an extension than send you before the Honor Council.

Online Participation

You may have noticed that your online participation in this course contributes 10% of your final course grade. To compute this portion of your grade in the past, I've counted every blog post, every bookmark, every tag, every comment, and arrived at a participation score for each student. This fall, I'd like to try something a little different.

I'm asking you to review your online participation in this course, compare your participation to that of your peers, and assess your contributions to the learning community. Give yourself an online participation score between 0 and 10 points. Email me with your score and a justification (not more than a paragraph) by Wednesday, December 9th.  If I think your score is reasonable, given your justification, I'll use that as your online participation grade.

When assessing your online participation, please focus on three areas: blog posts, bookmarks on Diigo, and the collaborative timeline. In each of these areas, I usually asked you for specific contributions -- posts that responded to particular questions, or bookmarks about specific topics, or tags and comments that fit certain parameters. As you look over your contributions to the course, keep these requests in mind. Also consider how your online participation contributed to the learning of your peers in the course.


Bookmark Assignment #5

Interesting PinFor your final bookmarking assignment, you should bookmark a resource of potential use to the "security and privacy" paper assignment. You might bookmark something relevant an Edward Snowden tweet, or some real world information on something mentioned in Little Brother, or an argument from the last few weeks about terrorism and encryption. Just be sure to bookmark a credible source and give your bookmark at least two useful tags.

Your bookmark is due by 9:00 a.m. on Monday, December 7.

Border Dispute

Here's the @snowden tweet (well, retweet) that caught my eye:

I mentioned this after our Citizenfour screening last night: The laws governing search and seizure at US borders aren't the same as the laws that apply within the country. Specifically, searches and seizures at borders don't require warrants. The tweet above references a recent course case that pushes back on this policy. The judge in the case ruled that the US government should not have seized (and searched) a laptop belonging to a South Korean businessman while he traveled through an LA airport, since they didn't have a warrant.

Given all the time Snowden spent between borders in a Moscow airport in 2013, perhaps he has a personal interest in this story, in addition to a policy interest.

Violating Rights or Protecting the Country?

Here's the tweet we found:

Here's what we think:

The government, which is governed by the Constitution, does not have the right to secretly violate that document. The Constitution was set up to restrain the expansion of power and protect the rights of US citizens. While times of war have created circumstances in which adaptations or violations have been justified, the people were made aware of these alterations, and were given a voice in the proceedings. For example, the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 were quickly repealed, due to the immediate outcry from the citizenry. As Snowden expressed in the documentary Citizenfour, the population should be made aware of the government's actions regarding their rights, especially where these actions potentially violate the First and Fourth Amendments.

Collaborator: Emily Struttmann


While the President could pardon Snowden, doing so would insinuate that the Espionage Act and other, similar policies are irrelevant in a modern context. It would also diminish the government's credibility in the eyes of the American public, because granting Snowden a pardon would essentially equate to admitting that everything the government has been saying about security and the power of their institutions is untrue.

Collaborators: Felix and Suzy

Hero or Traitor? Or neither? #catlords

Here's a tweet:

This tweet reveals Snowden's focus on the information itself as opposed to his role in releasing the information. He doesn't want to influence how people interpret the revealed documents. He neither views himself as a hero nor traitor; he just felt that it was his duty as a human being to expose the extreme powers of the NSA.

-Sara and Julia

"Literally the Point of Encryption"

Through his sass, Snowden points out that if a government can access encrypted messages, then it isn't really encrypted at all. It's the same idea as cell phone companies providing a "back door" for the government: if the government can get through the back door, so can anyone. There is no "gray area" with encryption; it either works or it doesn't.

-Abbey, Ross, & Parker


Snowden comments on the mass data breach in prison phone calls.

An anonymous hacker leaked material that implicates Securus in the violation of constitutional rights of inmates. Over 70 million conversations, some of which were between inmates and lawyers, were collected by Securus, the company which is in charge of phone services in prisons and jails. This proves that Securus could possibly be violating client-attorney privilege.

This parallels Snowden's actions with the NSA as an individual is exposing a governmental flaw that could be infringing upon rights and breaching citizens' security. He undoubtedly supports this #hactivism as it reveals otherwise unknown and unattainable information to the public eye. This leaves us asking the question - security or privacy?

Written by: CN, CG

Page 1 of 47

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén