The History and Mathematics of Codes and Code Breaking

Author: Jojo

Numbers Station Podcast

Numbers Stations is particularly interesting for me for many reasons. In the intro part, the author starts by talking about his personal connection with the topic, thus making his listeners more engaged in the subject. And then, the author uses a mixtape of different radio waves to create a context for the listeners. The author then wastes no time to dive right into a very simple and elegant introduction of the topic, starting with an example of the spanish numbers station.

What's particularly interesting to me is how the author went a long way to quote a lot of different sources. By stating everyone's name and position, he successfuly convinced his audience the credibility of his sources and brought many different perspectives to the podcast. He managed to keep all his examples authentic, despite the fact that they are all in different languages. The audience was provided with a great historic context. The author also ended by exploring the contemporary development of the topic, creating a sense of entirety for the topic.

The music use throughout the podcast was very intriguing. The tone of the music remained almost unchanged, and he adjusted different tunes to fit with the plot line. Overall the podcast is a mixture of many elements and its audience would never get bored.

The Allies' Resource Allocation

In his blog post, the student argued that besides the overconfidence of the German, the strength of the Allies' code itself contributed to the breaking of the Enigma code. I thought this was a very interesting viewpoint and never considered this before. The surprising usage of the Navajo language as military encryption proved to be unbreakable, thus allowing the Allies more time and resources allocated solely on cryptography.

The importance of resource usage and allocation is certainly important in the cryptography war. German's sloppy and careless usage of the machine played a role in the Allies' success. The machine workers made a few mistakes that wouldn't have been made if they had a certain level of understanding on the working mechanisms behind the Enigma machine. For instance, by never repeating letters in the daily scrambler settings, they actually eliminated repetitions for the Allies' cryptanalysists. On the other hand, Allies were especially protective of their codes, with only Navajo speakers controlling the content of the messages.

In addition, as the Allies had more time and resource available to focus on code-breaking, they were able to allocate the accurate resources. As they dealt with the Enigma machine, the former strategy of recruiting linguists was abandoned. They were able to focus their resources on scientists and mathematicians, and thus eventually beating the machine with another machine.

Why Cryptanalysis Seems Easier Than It Actually Is

Singh's examples in book seem easy to comprehend. The methods are relatively straightforward and codes were broken within few pages of the book. However, in practice the process of cryptanalysis is usually much more complicated. I believe there are three reasons for that.

First of all, the cryptanalyst has no idea what type of code is being used. Surely a frequency analysis could narrow the answer: if frequency is equal for all letters it's probably a Vigenère cipher; if frequencies don't change it's probably a transposition cipher; if frequencies follow the same pattern as English alphabets it's probably some type of shift cipher. However, those are not the only types of ciphers that can be utilized, and even if we manage to narrow it down to a few of them, they might each require different cryptanalysis methods, and that takes time.

Secondly, cryptographers could mix unimportant information with the actual content. For instance, they could encode a string of random letters and hide the real message in between them. For a cryptanalyst, if the bunk of the message doesn't make sense, he/she would assume the analysis is wrong and resort to the next solution.

Last but not least, it's hard to guess. In a lot of the examples in the book, the author takes several guesses and one of them yielded the right result. When we are doing cryptanalysis, sometimes it takes a dozen guesses to find the right answer. Sometimes we are not finding the right piece of code to guess upon. All of which takes up a lot of time and in the world of cryptanalysis, time is everything.

The Hidden Meaning Behind Words

The display in Newseum raised the matter of privacy v. security, with a special focus on FBI and its increased security measures after the 9/11 attack. The issue posed striking similarities with the story of the Little Brother, as the DHS increased the scale of its surveillance after a terrorist attack on the Bay bridge.

What I found interesting is the link people drew between words. For instance, surveillance means security and privacy means liberty. On the other hand, increased surveillance measures doesn't necessarily mean that safety is ensured. The loss of privacy to social media and websites such as Google/Amazon might not have such a strong connection to liberty.

If we discuss the terms surveillance and security at face value, they are both neutral words. Although there is a negative connotation associated with the word itself, surveillance without further action on the information obtained can seem harmless at times. However, as we discussed about the podcast, surveillance acts like a Panopticon, altering people's behaviors as they know they're being watched.

The wording on the display board itself is also interesting. It uses the words privacy and security instead of privacy and surveillance. On the other hand, on the bottom it raises the question: what would you give up to "feel" safer, this time using the word "feel" instead of "be".

Telegraph and Modern Day Technology on Cryptography

I believe the advent of the telegraph motivated the use of more secure cipher due to three reasons. Firstly, telegraph workers were gaining access to all messages being communicated through telegraph. While they were "sworn to secrecy", people might still seek ways to encrypt their messages from the eyes of telegraph workers. Secondly, communication was becoming more convenient and efficient, which could simultaneously increase the number of messages being sent every day. With such a drastic increase in quantity of communication came an increase in communicators. As more people became involved, they naturally sought to encrypt their messages from others. Last but not least, it became easier to intercept a message compared to utilizing the "Chambers" in previous times. Spies without such resource could tap into a telegraph line and obtain information. Thus, more encryption was in demand.

Modern day technologies have certainly changed the way we communicate. We have grown used to expecting instant responses and having quick conversations. We are accustomed to having some information transparent - for instance our own posts on social media as well as those of others. We are familiar with the accessibility of information and resources online and the convenience of the search engine.

Those modern technologies certainly have implications on secrecy and privacy. Private conversations are essentially computer codes routed through our phone companies or social media platforms. We are willing to reveal more and more personal information online - from date of birth to credit card numbers. We are utilizing vast encryption without knowing how they work or who designed them. This fairly protects the security of our messages but also renders us vulnerable of them being leaked. On the other hand, the public - especially the younger generation - has shown a clear affection towards secrecy. The success of Snapchat largely depends on its function to delete after view.

When Marcus Read a Quote from On the Road

In Chapter 14, Marcus read Ange an excerpt from the book On the Road, a semi-bioautography portraying Jack Kerouac hitchhiking around America and the incidents and people he encountered along the way (221). The scene took place right after Marcus got suspended from school and before he and Ange decided to launch an online press conference via a video game platform. I was surprised that the author used such a long paragraph to include a quote seemingly unrelated to the plotline. On the other hand, the character of On the Road represents Marcus himself, as “the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved”. It ties in closely with one of Xnetters’ central concepts: to never trust anyone over twenty-five - those who have lost the ability to go “mad”. They are perceived as “terrorists” by mainstream society, but they, who “never yawn or say a commonplace thing”, pushed the movement forward, eventually to its victory. In between Marcus’ long-time struggle of self-doubt and confusion, he moved forward because he was “desirous of everything at the same time”. Amidst his “madness”, he found love and peace on the road.

The Alluring Concept of Surveillance

In his essay "Mining Student Data Could Save Lives", Michael Morris argues that universities should take actions to threat-assess their students' online activities as well as mental states, thus maximizing the protection of campus safety and preventing large-scale assaults.

In his article, Morris argues that since universities already have access to almost all students' online activities, they should be the front line of defense, especially as "in the aftermath of nearly every large-scale act of campus violence in the United States, investigation has revealed that early-warning signs had been present but not recognized or acted upon". However, he does stress the distinction between mining for law violation and mining for university policy violation, as well as a due process that ensures students' rights.

Personally I agree with Morris' argument. While the line between security and privacy has always raised heated debates, in the context of universities the line is drawn rather clearly. As Morris states, data mining should strictly abide to the search for large-scale attacks targeting campus members.

The concept of surveillance is alluring with its strong link to "security", causing the constant overlook of important questions regarding such matter: who is surveiling; what are they looking for; how would they act on their knowledge? Different from Morris' view, I do not believe that voluntary usage of the internet means voluntary submission of personal data. With the majority of internet users ignorant of techniques behind web surfing, internet usage proposes no indication of forfeiting individual privacy to the institution.

On the other hand, if information is obtained about a large-scale attack, should and could the university take no action? Does the university not pose an obligation to protect its students, workers and faculty members? Does individual privacy have higher value than lives? Some may argue yes, some hesitate, and some give a definite no. The debate is ancient; and no conclusion has been reached.

I agree with Morris because in a university, the size and conduct of surveillance could be monitored. The process could potentially be semi-transparent. And most importantly, the goal is straight-forward. The university would only screen for campus violence, and nothing else. There is no interest involved, no higher authority exercising power on students. Thus comes the reassurance that personal privacy could be retained to its maximum.

How to Keep Communication Relatively Safe through Cryptography

"A weak encryption can be worse than no encryption" because it gives the communicators a false sense of security (41). As a result, they would fail to conceal their meaning in writing and use plain language.

What's communicated throughout the chapter is that one form of encryption is never enough. If one only employs the method of stenography, the message could be completely compromised upon discovery by the enemy. On the other hand, reliance on one form of cryptography is likewise reckless. Even in Queen Mary's case, as she employs several methods to conceive her message, the secret was still easily discovered.

To keep communication safe through the usage of cryptography might mean multiple forms of cryptography. For example, a substitution mixed with transposition, which adds an additional layer of protection. While that might still be insufficient, one could always choose to hide words by using secret language codes (unlike the codes adopted in encryption). For instance, "to assassin Queen Elizabeth" could be written as "to execute the sailing plan". In Queen Mary's case, such communication could have saved her from facing the death penalty.

Cryptography is only adopted when the messengers can't meet in person, in which case some form of written message has to be created. The key and algorithm, however, are always vulnerable to the risk of being deciphered. Cryptanalysis developed alongside cryptography. Thus, the security of encryption depends on how long it's going to take for the enemy to decipher the code. In other words, cryptography is a highly time-sensitive tool. The complexity of encryption could largely increase security, while also decreasing efficiency to communicate for all parties involved.

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén