The History and Mathematics of Codes and Code Breaking

Author: kolapo

What makes a Good Podcast?

My first thoughts after listening to both the professional podcasts and the student made podcasts was that podcasting is very difficult, and to be good at it, one needs to put in a lot of time and practice. The professional podcasters in 99% Invisible sounded so fluid and smooth, as if they were having a completely normal conversation. Music and sound effects fit in extremely well, and they complemented the podcast without distracting from what was being said. I imagine that it would be very easy to accidentally mess up how the music fits into a podcast properly, so I was very impressed.

In both of the 99% Invisible podcast, and especially Vox Ex Machina, I liked how the producers used stories to describe all of the examples they were making. They started with a relatively broad topic, and slowly narrowed it down to the specifics of how it was used in the war, using stories and narratives. I found it very interesting how the vocoder turned out to be something used commonly today in a lot of music. I've heard so many songs with that "robot voice", but I never knew the vocoder was responsible. It seems like a lot of things that were created for wars have ended up being remade into common modern day items. I find this very interesting, but it also makes sense. Wars are a time where we are trying to make new technologies to one-up our enemies, and a lot of this stuff can eventually be adapted.

After listening to these, I think it would be cool to do a podcast on Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace, though I'm not sure how unique of a topic that is.

How the Poles Helped the Allies Win the War


In this post, the writer describes what he calls "factors of victory" which were the outside components that helped the Allies crack the Enigma cipher and ultimately win the war. In the post, he says that the original Polish work on Enigma that was eventually given to the British played a role in helping with the cryptanalysis. Although he does mention the Poles in the post, he doesn't go into that much detail on them. In my opinion, I believe that the work from Biuro Szyfrow and Marian Sejewski played a big role in the war, and deserves much more credit than it seems to be given.

First off, it's possible that without the work from produced at the Biuro Szyfrow, British intelligence would have never even created Bletchley Park, or at least it would have been delayed by a few year, which is long enough to turn the tides of the war. It's very likely that the only reason British intelligence created Bletchley Park was because they had a head start. Had they not received any information from the Poles, they would be just as stuck as they had been for the thirteen years prior. They had practically given up, and the only reason the Poles even did anything was because they were threatened by the Germans. If it would have taken a major threat to push the British to crack the Enigma, they would have been years behind, and by then it would have been too late.

Is cryptanalysis really as easy as Singh makes it seem?

As Singh deciphered the example of the Vigènere cipher on page 116, and also other ciphers previously, I contemplated just how simple he was making them. He makes a lot of assumptions, and he also never points out some flaws that I have seen in his messages. In the example on page 16, Singh uses a message that makes his technique work very well. In this example, he uses a keyphrase that is as long as the message. Normally, this should be almost impossible to crack, because none of the cipher alphabets would be repeated in a pattern. He proposes a solution, by placing common words (he uses "the") in random locations in the plaintext. In his example, he gets it right on the first try. This is not that unlikely with such a short message, but a full paragraph of a long letter would take many more tries. He also makes the assumption that the cryptographer encrypting the message would use the word "the", or "and", or whatever word. If a cryptographer knew their code could be broken that way, they could simply refrain from using common words often. Once there are fewer common words present,  it becomes much more difficult to crack. In addition, using the method he proposed can cause false positives. It's possible that the letters "the" in the plaintext produce a discernible string of three letters in the ciphertext. If the cryptographer was smart, they could place a few traps, so that random keywords would show up in the cipher text. This would completely confuse the person deciphering the code, and may just make it extremely difficult to crack. Singh fails to address these flaws in his examples, and it makes it cryptanalysis seem easier than it really is.

General Michael V. Hayden: The Assault on Intelligence

Being completely honest, most of this talk went over my head. I tried to take notes as I was trying to take notes as I was listening, but they were speaking very quickly, and I couldn't really comprehend what they were saying. This is my attempt at notes:

  • First off, this talk has started out very political, which is not what I was expecting. They are barely talking about security of surveillance or anything like that, which is what I was expecting. I’m not a very political person and I’ve never been interested in political issues in America, so a lot of this stuff just kind of flew over my head. As of now, it’s been 25 minutes, and they’ve mostly been talking about politics. It seems like they don’t like Trump.
  • Hamiltonian, Jeffersonian, Wilsonian, Jacksonian. Says Trump is Jeffersonian.
  • Why did x happen in America? x= Al-qaeda, rise of Isis, etc. A mixture of instability between people in America, and a drifting of political culture. Grievance to post-truth drift. Social Media is like a Dorito. A Dorito looks like a tortilla chip, but instead it just delivers salt and fat. Social media seems good, but the more you use it, the more you get pulled into your own self-identity.
  • 3 principles in internationalist view: immigration is good for America’s economy, trade is good for America’s economy, and alliances are good. Isn’t that kind of obvious?
  • If the president decides that the national security of the US needs a nuclear attack, how does that happen?
    • It has to bounce between a few groups/people.
    • Hayden is concerned about miscalculation.
    • This man definitely doesn’t like Trump.
  • They talked a bit about what is going on today on Capitol Hill with Kavanaugh and Dr. Ford and all that business.
  • Drew a relationship between the William Jennings Bryant and the presidential race today. Bryant didn’t want to adapt to the times and go along with industrialization. It was a bit unclear what he said about how it relates today.
  • The audience is probably 85% adults, 12% law students who were either interested or had to come to this, and then there are a few undergrads here. I was definitely not prepared for this. I think most of the people here know this stuff well enough to know what is being talked about, so I definitely don’t fit in here very well.






What do people find important in the debate over security vs privacy?

The question that was asked on this display at the Newseum was similar to the one we were asked on the first day of class. We were asked if we agreed or disagreed with giving up our privacy for more security. This question takes it a step further, and asks specifically what people would give up for that extra security. There were some expected responses that I saw, like "Text messages + phone records", "Freedom", and also a few other random answers that didn't really contribute to the purpose or message of the display. There were two that I saw that stood out though. One was "as much as necessary to feel safe". The other was the Benjamin Franklin quote, that said "Those who would give up essential liberty, to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty or safety".

These two responses stood out to me because they seem to fall on the two sides of the privacy vs security debate. The first one reminds me of a few of the characters from Little Brother who were on the pro-security side. Characters like Marcus's dad and Charles has the same mindset as this viewpoint. Marcus's dad felt okay with complying with anything the DHS said as long as it made him feel like he was safer. If it cost him an extra 2 hours going to and from work, then so be it. Even the hassle of being stopped by police for no reason was not enough to faze him. As long as the DHS was trying to catch terrorists, any violation of privacy was okay.

The other response reminds me of the argument that Marcus, Charles, and Mrs. Andersen had during their class period. Mrs. Andersen said something along the lines of "our founding fathers intended for the constitution to change over time as viewpoints changed". The Benjamin Franklin quote makes me feel as if this might not be entirely true, or at least not to the extent of what Mrs. Andersen said. I think they expected times to change, but some things were essential to a well-working government, and one of these was respect of the citizens privacy. On the other side, citizens shouldn't even have to consider giving up their liberties, but if they were given that choice, the founding fathers still believed that their liberty is more important.


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.

Why are People Still Trying to Solve the Beale Ciphers?

The first, most obvious answer to this question is that people are still attempt the Beale ciphers for the possible monetary gain. 20 million dollars is a lot of money, and solving the ciphers would be a relatively low effort way of acquiring all that money and getting rich. When I say relatively low effort, I mean that it doesn't require years of schooling, starting a business, or somehow becoming wealthy in the way the average millionaire does. In a sense, solving the Beale ciphers is like winning the lottery, except that it actually requires skill.

The Beale ciphers appeal to people because they believe that they don't have to do too much to solve it, and that if they somehow did, the benefits would be worth it. I think that as people continue to try the ciphers and rule out certain ideas, it makes newcomers confident that they'll be able to figure out a new possibility. Hypothetically, if everyone on the planet were able to try a method to solve this multiple times a day, It would slowly be narrowed down until somebody figured it out. This could take many years, but it would still be solved eventually. This group effort is a possibility for why people still want to try it. In addition, someone could just use the second letter for clues, and find the treasure without actually solving the rest of the cipher, which takes out the intellectual effort and really makes it like winning the lottery. All they would have to do is dig up a whole bunch of holes 4 miles from Buford, and eventually, they may find it.

The last reason why it might still be appealing is that its just fun to try. A lot of people love solving puzzles and stuff like that, and this isn't all that different fro Harajuku Madness from Little Brother. It's the same kind of thing that draws people to things like Cicada and Geocaching and other things like that. Also, who wouldn't want to be the person known for solving a 200 year old cipher and getting 20 million dollars?

How do Experiences Change Our Views on Data-Mining?

One thing I noticed both in this book and in real life is how quickly people's opinions can change on a subject after dealing with certain experiences. In the case of this novel, the subject is data-mining and surveillance. Throughout the course of the book, we see many different stances on privacy rights, but we also see many people change their ideas after going through life-changing experiences.

One of the primary examples of this is Marcus's dad Drew, who we see going back and forth between sides multiple times. On page 109, we see Drew come back home, after Marcus was questioned by the police. To Marcus and his mom, this questioning was unjust and a waste of time. According to them, it made no sense to detain every single person in the city who showed some sort of odd travel behavior. But when Drew heard about it, he believed that they were just doing their jobs, and if anything, all of this tracking and surveillance was helping to keep them safe. This was a complete turnaround from page 78, immediately after Marcus returned from DHS custody. His dad was absolutely livid, but at the time, he hadn't had a chance to learn what had happened. Later in the book, Drew changes his mind again, after learning what truly happened to Marcus after the bridge bombing. He went from supporting all the extra surveillance, to hating it in an instant. This shows that just having one extreme experience can completely change one's views on a lot of subjects.

Not only did this happen in the book, but I have also experienced this in our class. When we originally answered the question about security and privacy, I believed that having privacy was more important than having more security. Once we read the article about the college campus and data-mining, my opinion changed to having more security. After reading little brother though, my opinion has changed back to more privacy. It's possible that these examples are skewing my opinions because of how extreme they are, but I'm still realizing how easy it was for them to change my mind. From now on, I plan on being more aware of this as I continue to learn more about how surveillance can be used on us.

A different view on "privacy vs security"

In the essay Mining Student Data Could Save Lives, Michael Morris advocates for the idea that colleges should have access to the data of their students in order to prevent and safety hazards that some students may pose. At the time this was written, Morris describes how FERPA (Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act) rights had just been reviewed and changed, so that universities could use a students information without consent if it was thought necessary to protect the safety of others. That relied on observations from other students and faculty in order to make assumptions. Now, technology enables us to use algorithms designed to find unusual behaviors, and these algorithms are able to accurately predict the outcomes of these situations. Morris argues that campuses should be using this technology to analyze their students network traffic in order to prevent those safety hazards that may be a threat. Although many universities and their students might believe that this would be a violation of privacy, their data is already being used all over the internet. Morris describes examples of algorithms recognizing unusual credit card purchases, and others that are the reason why one might see an advertisement about something that they were shopping for earlier. Overall, Morris believes that colleges should be using these advances in technology to increase their security and safety, even if it may come at the cost of privacy.

This article gave me a different view on the "privacy vs security" argument. I originally said that I wouldn't want my data to be viewed and used, but I never thought about applying it to a situation like this. In economics so far this semester, I've learned about opportunity costs. Opportunity cost emphasizes that in a situation, one should only do "it" if the benefits outweigh the costs. When applying that idea to this situation, I definitely believe that the benefits of giving up my privacy to my university would outweigh the costs. One of the costs of holding on to my privacy could possibly be my life or a serious injury if my university couldn't act on a potentially violent student. I think this is pretty much the biggest possible cost, and I most definitely would not give up my life for a little more privacy.

The Consequences of a Weak Encryption

"On page 41, Singh writes, “The cipher of Mary Queen of Scots clearly demonstrates that a weak encryption can be worse than no encryption at all.”  What does Singh mean by this and what does it imply for those who would attempt to keep their communications secret through cryptography?" (Question 1)

When encrypting messages, having a weak cipher can severely jeopardize the security of the message that is trying to be hidden. In the example in the book, Mary Queen of Scots was oblivious to the fact that her encrypted messages were being solved easily, and because of this, she and Babington made clear in their "secret" message that the plan was to kill Elizabeth. Had they not only encrypted their message but also made vague the exact components of their plan, it is possible that there wouldn't have been enough evidence against Mary Queen of Scots. If instead they had used no encryption, it is likely that they wouldn't have been so open and clear about discussing their plans. This most likely wouldn't have helped their plan work that much better, though it could have possibly saved Mary Queen of Scots from being executed.

The notion that "a weak encryption can be worse than no encryption at all" is a good rule that all cryptographers should abide by. This pushes cryptographers to focus hard on making extremely strong ciphers, especially in today's society where technology makes it much easier to crack codes in short periods of time. And, while encrypting messages, cryptographers should also make sure to keep their messages vague, so that only the intended recipient who knows the context should be able to decipher the decrypted message. Having a strong encryption and a specific message designed only for the recipient almost completely ensures privacy.

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