The History and Mathematics of Codes and Code Breaking

Academic Integrity Beyond the Scope of College

During the Honour Council’s “Academic Integrity 101: Winning the Right Way”, Nitya Venkat’s perspective on academic integrity stood out to me. Nitya Venkat is a MHS and Neuroscience major who is also the Vice President of the Undergraduate Honour Council. She highlighted that academic integrity was important to her beyond the scope of college. Nitya is planning to apply for medical school this year. She said when patients trust her with their lives, they can do so knowing she earned her credentials the right way. Patients can trust that she has the necessary knowledge to help them because she did not cheat her way to medical school. The connection of academic integrity to the real world was one that never seem very prominent to me until I attended the Honour Council’s presentation. I had not deeply considered that a student’s choice to cheat might affect more people than just him or herself. For example, that student might be missing knowledge necessary to help a patient.

Another piece of information that I did not know prior to attending the Honour Council’s presentation was that catchy phrases can be plagiarized. For example, the presenter showed us a catchy phrase that had been slightly modified by changing the order of the words and the tenses. I learned that copying a slightly modified catchy phrase without citation is still plagiarism.

The Honour Council’s presentation also offered so information about the history of the Honour Council. It was created in 1900 by students and it is still student-run up to this day. It was inspiring to see Vanderbilt students’ who were not only interested in “Winning the Right Way”, but also so self-motivated to help others “Win the Right Way”.

Blog Assignment #5

The summer of 2017, I visited the Newseum in Washington, DC, with my kids. The Newseum is a museum focused on the five liberties of the First Amendment to the US Constitution: religion, speech, press, assembly, and petition. One of their exhibits looked at the FBI's role in fighting crime and terrorism. As my daughters and I were walking through the exhibit, I noticed this display:

For your fifth blog assignment, respond to this display in a post between 200 and 400 words. I'm really curious to know what you make of it, given the discussions we've had in the course about privacy and security.

Please (1) give your post a descriptive title, (2) assign it to the "Student Posts" category, and (3) give it at least three useful tags. Also, (4) try embedding the above photograph in your post. (Click on "Add Media" when you're composing your post to do so.)

Your post is due by 9:00 a.m. on Wednesday, September 26th.

Bookmark #3

I maintain a list of Twitter users who provide information, resources, opinions, and occasionally humor about cryptography, encryption, surveillance, and privacy. Here are the members of my "Crypto" Twitter list, and here are their most recent tweets.

For your third bookmarking assignment, find and bookmark a Twitter user who should be added to my "Crypto" Twitter list. Look for scholars, researchers, journalists, or others who are active on Twitter and regularly provide useful perspectives on encryption and its role in our society today. When evaluating a potential addition, know that humor is fine, but crazy is not.

The goal here is to build a list of sources that will provide good material for your  "security vs. privacy" papers later in the semester.

Your bookmark is due by 9 a.m. on Monday, September 24th. Please bookmark the Twitter user's account. The URL should have the form or something similar.

Academic Integrity 101: Winning the Right Way

In this seminar, members of the undergraduate honor council gave a presentation on different aspects of the honor council and academic integrity. This consisted of personal stories about what integrity means to the students, and also a few hypothetical examples to show the different situations where one may have to make a choice about what the right thing to do is.

The presentation started with the vice president of the honor council discussing how academic integrity affects her. She said that the reason that she joined the honor council and why she holds integrity so highly comes from her goals for medical school and eventually becoming a doctor. She says that when she becomes a doctor, she wants her patients to have full, complete trust in her. She believes that she can only provide that if she makes it through undergrad and medical school on her own merit, and not by cheating off of someone else.

The next segment was about how plagiarism isn't always just direct copying and pasting. They showed this my providing many different examples of plagiarism where the work wasn't cited. This included paraphrasing, changing a couple of words, and using a catchy phrase used by someone else. The next part of the presentation was similar to what we did in class on tophat. There were different scenarios presented, and people in the audience had to determine if the scenario was or was not an honor code violation, and also what they would do instead. These were a bit more obvious that the ones we did in class, and honestly, they weren't very helpful. It was clear what the right answer was, and they weren't the kinds of questions that would help me in the future if I was trying to determine what choice to make.

The last section was a presentation by the president about what integrity means to him. He told a story from his childhood about a time when he lied to his mother about his school work and she caught him. After that incident, his mom put a quote in his room that said "a good person is one who does the right thing when nobody is looking". I also believed that this was a great quote, because integrity is something that defines a good person, and a truly good person will always be honest and will always do what's right.

Academic Integrity Defines You

The Honor Council’s perspective on academic integrity revolved around violations being more than just cheating on a test or collaborating on an assignment. They positioned that how you conduct yourself at a critical time demonstrates the sort of student you are. This idea even extends beyond one’s academic career; it also represents the kind of person one will be after graduation.

The Vice President of the Honor Council, Nitya Venkat, presented a personal example that explains this approach to the honor code. Venkat is an aspiring medical student who wants to practice as a doctor in the near future. She explained that if she has graduated from medical school and is taking her own patientens, they instill a form of trust in her. This is not just the trust that she provides the right medical care, but it is the trust that she has become a doctor through trustworthy means and has the adequate knowledge to provide professional care. A patient’s trust exists because they assume positive intent, but this faith relies on the integrity of each prospective doctor being kept. Venkat stated that this concept extends beyond just the medical field: it can apply to all professions.

Several members of the Honor Council also provided their unique insight into what the honor code was to them and a breakdown of specific characteristics. One aspect that stood out was the fact that the honor code is nothing new. In fact, it has existed since 1875 and used to just be, “On my word and honor as a gentleman, I have neither given nor received help on this examination.” The Honor Council highlighted the fact that it’s changing and adapting to the times; it has always been used to uphold student accountability. After all, everything a Vanderbilt student does is not just a reflection of themselves but the community that they belong to. That is why it is so important to hold students to this standard.

Overall, the Honor Council advised to never be afraid to ask when uncertain if an action could be a breach of the honor code. Following the honor code ensures that one does not rob themselves or the professors and faculty of the investment made in students.

The Race Between Cryptanalysis and Encryption

The status quo of cryptography can be accurately represented by a game of tennis between two equally good players. When a strong cipher is developed, the ball moves to cryptanalysis. Upon development of better decryption techniques, the ball returns back to the court of the encryptors. The period in which an event happens in the world of cryptography is heavily influenced by who has the power between cryptanalysis and encryption.

During the time of Mary Queen of Scots, the users of cryptography had little to no faith in the abilities to decrypt, causing them to have  undue faith on their abilities to encrypt. By not giving sufficient credit to cryptanalysis, they did not bother with either reinforcing the difficulty of the cipher  or any sort of counter measures in case the cipher was broken, leaving them in a worse position had they chosen not to encrypt. On the other hand, the situation before the Vigenère cipher was the exact opposite as the strength of any cipher was presumed to be weak. Encryptors were motivated to fortify their ciphers and even after encryption, they would communicate in  ways that would seem senseless without context. Some would even avoid cryptography altogether and find other ways to convey the desired message.

I also believe that during the period of Mary Queen of Scots, cryptography itself was fairly new and unheard of. This meant that almost no one had any idea how to encrypt (and naturally, decrypt) ciphers. After cryptography became more popular, more people explored the avenue and cipher breaking became more ubiquitous. This was another reason for encryptors to strive to strengthen their ciphers.

The Cipher That Survived for 200 Years

The Great Cipher of King Louis XIV was an enhanced monoalphabetic substitution cipher that managed to remain unsolved for over two centuries.  It was developed by the father-and-son team of Antoine and Bonaventure Rossignol, two of the best cryptanalysts in France.  King Louis XIV used it to securely encrypt sensitive information regarding his political plans.  The first characteristic of the Great Cipher that made it so strong was that it used 587 different numbers to encode messages rather than just 26 symbols, like a standard monoalphabetic substitution cipher.  This meant that there were multiple possibilities for the significance of each number.  Cryptanalysts initially thought that each number corresponded to a single letter, with several ways to represent each letter.  A cipher like this would be quite effective in that it would be immune to frequency analysis, but the Great Cipher was actually even more complicated.  Rather than a single letter, each number represented a full syllable in the French language.  Since there are so many possible syllables, this method is several times more secure, requiring a cryptanalyst to match up far more than just 26 pairs of meanings.  In addition, the Rossignols made the cipher extra deceiving to potential codebreakers by making some of the numbers delete the previous syllable instead of signifying a unique one.  All of these strong encryption techniques contributed to the longevity of the Great Cipher, and it remained unsolved until expert cryptanalyst Commandant Étienne Bazeries finally broke through 200 years later.

Why are the Beale Ciphers so Enticing?

The Beale ciphers are a mystery. No one truly knows if the treasure is real or fabricated. The book said that “Skeptics believe that the entire story was fabricated to profit from the greed of others.” Even though the story may possibly be a hoax, people will not stop trying to decrypt the message. One reason why people are still trying to decrypt the message is the reward. Twenty million dollars is a large amount of money, and some people will do whatever they can to get their hands on it. Greed can motivate people to do outrageous things, that includes solving an extremely difficult encryption.

Being acknowledged is another reason why people are still trying to break the ciphers. If I was to somehow be able to decode the Beale ciphers, the money would be amazing, but I want the acknowledgment that comes with it. It is a dream of mine to be recognized for my efforts, and I believe that others feel the same. If I was to crack a code that has not been broken in around two hundred years, I would be filled with pride. Solving encryptions takes luck, logic, and creativity. If a person was to decipher the Beale ciphers, they would feel accomplished for all of the work that they had to do to solve it since it is not an easily breakable cipher. I believe that the treasure has already been found either by luck or deciphering the encryption. According to the book, conspiracy theorists believe that the treasure has been found by the NSA. It is very likely that the treasure is not real, but people still want to solve it to get recognition.

Uncertain Environments Generate Safer Practices

An environment in which one knows he or she must constantly maintain precautions is safer than one where they are unaware of the dangers that potentially exist.  

This concept is exemplified in the case of Mary Queen of Scots by the simple fact that her naive belief that she was speaking in secrecy directly resulted in her death. She essentially signed up for her own funeral by openly disclosing matters of treason. If she had been living in the era in which it was common knowledge that a “codebreaker might intercept and decipher their most precious secrets,” (Singh, p.45) then it is much more likely she would have been less forthcoming with the information she provided in her encrypted messages.

The new environment created was far more advanced than anyone in her time could have predicted. Mary’s generation falls in the era of monoalphabetic substitution, whereas the new age moved on to as many as twenty-six (polyalphabetic). Furthermore, everyone in this new era of cryptography frequently changed their methods. They would not be caught dead using such a basic cipher over a prolonged period of time to transport such crucial information. Even the ciphers used for general business information transported by telegraphs was more secure than the cipher Mary trusted her life with.

The new environment of encryption even allowed for progression in the cryptography field. As ciphers became more complex, more professional codebreakers emerged that continued to prove how difficult it was to create an uncrackable code. In turn, this generated more ciphers and the loop continues from there. Progression did not just make the population more cautious, but it also generated societal growth.

The Allure of an Undecipherable Cipher

The Beale Ciphers, despite the attempts of hundreds if not thousands of cryptanalysts, have never been broken before, and might never be broken in the future. Two of the three pages that Beale left behind are still shrouded in complete mystery, and likely will remain a mystery unless someone manages to find the key that Beale used to encode the ciphers. In all likelihood, all the cryptanalysts working on the cipher are wasting their time while hoping for an outcome that will never come. So why are so many people so interested in cracking the Beale Cipher?

The first and most obvious, though perhaps not the primary answer is the promise of wealth. Allegedly, the rest of the Beale Ciphers will lead the one who cracks the code to the treasure trove that Beale hid somewhere within 4 miles of Buford's Tavern. This was the primary motivation of the cryptanalysts during and immediately after Beale's time, because everyone wanted to be the first to solve it and get Beale's fortune. However, as time went on, hope of getting the money slowly faded, but people still actively try to crack the Beale Cipher. For them, the pursuit of fame, glory, and the unknown is enough to keep them going. Being the first person to solve a 200 year old, perviously unbreakable cipher would certainly be neat, even if the papers didn't actually lead to a $20 million grand prize. Their name would go down in history along with Babbage, Kasinki, and Bazeries as the people who finally cracked ciphers that completely baffled everyone else. It's a similar story with the Zodiac letters. Two of the letters have been decoded, but the remaining two are still completely undecipherable. Despite the many failed attempts by amateurs and professionals alike, many people still actively try to solve both ciphers, though not as much for practical purposes as for the thrill of the hunt.

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