The History and Mathematics of Codes and Code Breaking

Author: Mason Grow

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 For example, the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 were quickly repealed, due to the immediate outcry from the citizenry.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

Protection, or Paranoia?

"Some teens see privacy as a right, but many more see privacy as a matter of trust. Thus, when their parents choose to snoop or lurk or read their online posts, these teens see it as a signal of distrust." In this quote from her book It's Complicated, danah boyd points out the potential effects of strict parental control of computers. She discusses specific examples of teenagers who have a variety of opinions on this parenting policy.

In my experience, strict parental restrictions on computers and media are often ineffective parenting methods. While my parents were entirely trusting and never even checked my grades, let alone my computer history, my best friend's were not. Neither of us was ever doing anything we needed to hide, but it was clear to me the effect of our parents' different styles. For example, I was perfectly willing to give my parents my passwords, and we had talked about how I should be willing, but they had never asked for them--my friend's passwords were taped to the refrigerator. As we grew up, going through high school, I began to recognize the great disparity between our experiences. My parents trusted me to be responsible on my laptop, to come to them with problems or questions, and to monitor my own media. When I got a Twitter, for example, I let them know. My friend's parents, however, generally trusted her as long as they could verify that their trust was well-placed. Their restrictions diminished as we got older, but they were still present--and still a topic of conversation for us.

While my friend's parents meant well, they restricted their daughter's freedom to explore. She never really rebelled, but we would have lengthy conversations about what tv shows she would watch when we went to college, and why we thought the rules were unfair. The idea of privacy was a well-covered topic in our discussions. Looking back, her parents' rules caused my friend to wish she could hide at least something, while my parents' made me to feel free to come to them with anything. From my perspective, my friend never developed the kind of trust I have in my parents, because hers never gave her the chance. boyd's statement on this topic fits this observation. My friend never saw privacy as a right, but more as a signal of trust that she never received.

The False Feeling of Security

I greatly enjoyed the class debate passages (p. 92-93, 175-182) in Little Brother. In the first debate, Marcus brings up the effects of terrorism and the problems with reactions to it.

Marcus' argument about the effects of terrorism involves the types of reactions societies have to acts of terrorism. Post-attack, his school system decides to install cameras in every classroom and hallway. He argues that this reaction gives into the terrorists' goals, because it fosters fear in the students and does nothing to truly protect them. In general, I agree with Marcus. The cameras give a false sense of security, pretending to be preventative measures when in truth they can do nothing to defend the students in the event of an attack, or to prevent one from happening. All the cameras do is watch and wait, ready to catch evidence to incriminate terrorists, which will be of no comfort to the victims of the attack. Therefore, the cameras are not much more than constant reminders of the events of the past and of all the fear there is to be felt in this world.

This concept reminds me of the heightened security after terrorist attacks, like 9/11. Post-9/11, airport security was entirely remade, and incredibly tight procedures were created. However, while some of these procedures can prevent and protect, they have their issues. The new procedures in any post-attack scenario increase security on the target of the attack--in this case, planes. The problem is, airports and planes are just one potential target, and it's unlikely that, having used that method, a terrorist group will choose to use it again. This isn't to say that increased security and tightened protocols are poor uses of resources. They are, of course, necessary and good. However, they do not automatically mean that everyone is safe. In fact, it seems to me that even as new security measures are important, they also allow the terrorists to accomplish their goal. Without the precautions, we leave ourselves open to other attacks via the same battle-tested methods. However, with the precautions, we focus our attention on one group of targets, associate fear with said targets for some period of time, and use valuable (but necessary) resources to defend them, without any real knowledge of the next potential target. These are the problems of being on the defensive, but they are issues to which I believe cryptography can hold the answers.

Enigmatic Ingenuity

     While there are many reasons for the Allied cryptanalysts’ hard-won victory over the German cryptographers, the human factor—and German underestimation of its impact—stands foremost in my mind. Enigma machines, radios, weapons—these are all well and good, as long as people know how to use them. Clearly, the Germans were overconfident in the security of Enigma, but this overconfidence goes hand in hand with underestimation of the potential impact of human ingenuity and error.
     For the Germans, the Enigma machine initially provided an entirely secure method of communication. However, as time went on, the Enigma operators grew sloppy. They began using repetitive words, formed habits that allowed the Bletchley Park to break the Enigma. While the Germans could have placed less confidence in the security of the Enigma machine, they also could have recognized the potential for human error. Blinded as they were by the shininess of the Enigma machine, the Germans somewhat forgot about the people who were operating the machines. Humans, as it is said, are creatures of habit, and the German Enigma operators were no exception.
    For the British, German underestimation of the human factor proved critical in their path to victory. The Germans' mistakes did not just provide Bletchley Park with sufficient data to get a grip on the encryption. The underestimation of human ingenuity on the British side also resulted in the successful cryptanalysis of the Enigma code. The Germans seemingly did not predict the formation of an organization like Bletchley Park, where the best and brightest in every field related to cryptography, and many entirely unrelated. The British pulled in crossword addicts, scientists, bridge players, world class mathematicians, and history buffs. This ingenious mixture of people all thrown into the high pressure situations of worldwide war, working together, came up with many brilliant solutions to the Enigma problem. The Germans appear to not have thought of this possibility, or of the potential ingenuity of the people pulled together, and their subsequent capitalization on the errors of German cryptologists. The situation can really be viewed as one German Enigma operator and a machine against a diverse team of the brightest in the world. In the end, the human factor on both sides--error on one, and ingenuity on the other--resulted in British victory.
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The Sign of Zodiac

I found Elonka Dunin's website to be greatly interesting. Her small bits of information about the Zodiac Killer on her List of Famous Unsolved Codes and Ciphers specifically caught my eye. Before now, I had of course heard of this serial killer and his or her bold ciphers. However, I had not thought about it in a long time--definitely not since before the start of this course. Her little comments on it, both in her list and her book, The Mammoth Book of Secret Code Puzzles, are just enough to reignite interest in this decades-old mystery. To me, this reveals another area in which cryptanalysis can be put to use--solving not only messages in times of war, as we have discussed in class, but also messages involved in criminal activities. We've discussed the uses of cryptography in wartime extensively, but have not taken it quite from the realm of counterintelligence to that of criminal justice.

The uses of cryptography in criminal justice are quite similar to those in counterintelligence. Both involve determining the enemy's intentions, and possibly his or her motives. In cases of criminal justice, investigators can use cryptanalysis to either analyze intercepted messages or to understand evidence left behind at a crime scene. To me, the case of the Zodiac Killer also sparks my psychological curiosity. This serial killer had to have a reason for sending the encrypted messages to law enforcement. These motives could be power, confidence, pride, or many other things. Successful cryptanalysis of the unsolved messages could reveal these motives, and possibly provide more evidence as to his or her identity.

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The Road Less Traveled By

Admiral Hall's decision not to inform the U.S. about the impending U-boat attacks was complex, to say the least. The reasons why he would share his new intelligence with President Wilson are clear--the U.S. and Britain were allies to some degree, and it might possibly bring the U.S. into the war. However, I find his reasoning against sharing this new intel to be quite persuasive. By sharing the intel, he could lose a valuable asset which could save lives, and he might not even be believed. This is where the issue of ethics comes in.

Sharing the intel on the Germans appears to be the most ethical choice. It does right by an ally, and it saves lives. Then again, the lives possibly lost by this revelation of a way of gathering information could outweigh those saved. Once they found out the British had broken the cipher, the Germans would certainly change their encryption methods, and the flow of information would be cut off. This event could possibly lead to more losses in battle, more lives sacrificed. These two possibilities create the well-known gray area of war, in which many ask, "which path will save the most lives?" There was no true way to know which way to go, no way of figuring out just exactly how many lives would be lost either way. Admiral Hall was stuck between a rock and a hard place, his own personal catch-22.

Despite his dilemma, Admiral Hall, in my opinion, still managed to make the most ethical choice. Not only did he save the lives of his people, but he also saved the lives of the endangered Americans. By choosing to keep his intel secret, but orchestrating its revelation by way of a different channel, he managed to choose the path that wasn't apparent to many others. He kept his decryption success secret, and caused the American government to learn the true content of the telegram through a completely non-incriminating source: a mistake in the enemy's actions. Had he not done this, I might say his actions were unethical, that he should have saved the lives most definitely in danger. However, by managing to protect both potential victims from harm, I believe that Admiral Hall took the most ethical path available.

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Being Nosy, or Being Cautious?

Michael Morris' article about mining student data greatly interests me. His chosen topic is one bursting with complexity. First, there are the moral implications of such actions. Is it an invasion of privacy? Or is it simply bettering the protection of the student population? These are questions which our country has struggled with since the birth of cryptography in relation to national security, and I am excited to explore these questions for myself. Next, there is the question of the efficiency of such a tactic--will it actually work? This question involves technology, and logical analysis, and behavioral psychology. As a person who loves the complexities of logic and of psychology, I feel that I will greatly enjoy exploring this topic. Following this trail of efficiency questions, another question springs up: how would a school go about doing such a thing? I ask this not only in the technological sense, but in the tactical sense. Of course it seems that a system would be necessary for finding patterns and pulling out certain alarming ones, but which information to use? And how far back? How often does one pull data, or is it sifted through on a constant basis? All of these are questions which I plan to ask when I begin writing this essay.

Easier to Learn, or Easier to Access?

I believe that, while a high level of scholarship was required to develop the frequency analysis approach, it is not critical to the use of this approach. When the world was new to this subject--when it had just discovered ciphers and keys and cryptanalysis--all of the knowledge was completely new. It was the cutting edge, so not many people understood it yet. It was essential to attain a high level of education to comprehend the mysteries of cryptology. However, with the modern education system, and modern technology, people have the information necessary more readily available. People can access the "mathematics, statistics, and linguistics" necessary to equip themselves for code making and codebreaking. Also, the easy access means that the information surrounds the human population. We have billions of pieces of data sitting at our fingertips, just waiting in that ever-present "cloud." Because of this access, and as a result of the heightened academic expectations, "amateur" cryptanalysts can use previously lengthy and difficult methods of analysis with much more ease. The civilization has reached a "sufficiently sophisticated level of scholarship in several disciplines," and therefore the people of that civilization may achieve the same accomplishments which the Islamic civilization discovered. However, as a result of the constant inundation of information prevalent in our society, and the resultant size of the body of common knowledge, amateur cryptanalysts can now use approaches such as frequency analysis, which was so arduously sought out, without any formal training.

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