The History and Mathematics of Codes and Code Breaking

A World That Wanted Privacy

As more and more people gained knowledge of the existence of cryptography, the possibility of more secure communications wouldn’t have been all that unappealing a prospect to the common man. In the later 1800’s, education would have been more prevalent so literacy rates would have gone up significantly. A more educated population could better see the benefit of secure communications and records. Information like business secrets could be encoded to give some degree of deterrence to thieves, and messages sent through an easily intercepted medium such as the postal service would be more secure.

Additionally, with the invention and widespread use of the telegraph, the number of communications greatly increased. Of course, due to the nature of the telegraph, unless you had your own relay and message station, all messages had to be sent out through an operator. The idea that all telegrams would be read without it even being intercepted by a third party would be unnerving for many. This doesn’t even account for the possibility that a telegraph operator might be paid to reveal important messages despite their being sworn to secrecy. Even a simple level of encryption would prevent nearly every instance of a private message being intercepted, barring a third-party interception through the telegraph line.

Today, there is also an interest in ciphers among younger people in trying to keep short messages secret. However, for most people, a simple encryption of a message takes time, and deciphering it is very easy with the invention of digital computers (along with the hundreds of web tools that can decipher a message in seconds). I feel the general public today are more interested in the overall security of a communication method and not necessarily the mechanism behind its action. For example, while many people might know an “https” means a secure connection, they might not care about the mechanisms of the public key encryption used to ensure that security. In general, they are more focused on the end result of various security measures, and knowing the overall degree of protection given.


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Academic Integrity Resources

1 Comment

  1. Julia

    I agree that in modern society, the general public is more concerned about the overall security of a communication method than the actual encryption method used to make it secure. As access to education has soared and technology has improved, the field of cryptography has expanded in scope and complexity. The ciphers produced nowadays are ridiculously difficult to break, which has both positive and negative consequences. On the positive side, it leads to greater security and trust in online banking, online shopping, etc. However, it has led to a decline in the interest of learning and employing cryptography. The consensus of the general public is that encrypting a message usually has little value, as highly advanced technology and individuals skilled in codebreaking exist; therefore, it is difficult to thoroughly conceal a secret through cryptography. As a result, the use of cryptography is not very popular among modern society.

    I have noticed that teenagers often use code words when discussing something private in a public place, but beyond this, using cryptography to hide secrets is rare among the general population. Nowadays, an individual can talk to someone over the phone, or even travel and talk to them face-to-face, if they have a message to relay or a secret to divulge. In the old days, this was not possible. The only reasonable way to communicate was through letters with intermediary messengers. Therefore, the sender had less direct control over the message, which made using cryptography crucial in order to maintain secrecy. The importance of encrypting private messages has decreased as the facilitation of communication has improved, since individuals have more control in the sending of their messages, which eliminates some of the need to encrypt the message in the first place.

    In our society, with the public nature of social media and the Internet, individuals are aware of the fact that anything they post on the web is easily accessible by many. Even by encoding his or her message, one should not be confident in the security of the message because of advanced decryption technology. Because of this, information that an individual wants to keep private on the Internet relies more so on the security of the website than on the potential encryption of the information by the individual himself. The complexity of modern-day cryptography emphasizes the importance of the security of a communication method rather than the manual encryption of a message.

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