The History and Mathematics of Codes and Code Breaking

Month: December 2015

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

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