Cryptography

The History and Mathematics of Codes and Code Breaking

Author: Jackson

The Danger of Old Social Media Posts

"In DC, I met an African American seventeen-year-old named Shamika who found that her peers loved to use old status updates and point to them in a new context in order to “start drama.” She found this infuriating because the posts that she wrote a month ear- lier were never intended as fodder for current arguments."

During my reading of it's complicated, this quote particularly caught my attention, due to how many real life examples of this occurring in the real world exist. For instance, a few weeks ago ESPN started a new show called Barstool Van Talk which featured two bloggers about that day's events in sports. However, after the first episode aired, old tweets began to surface of hurtful tweets sent by the owner of the company, Barstool Sports. As a result, ESPN canceled the TV show and even completely amended their internal social media policy. However, this points to a larger issue which is that the distinction between what is socially acceptable and what is not socially acceptable changes on a daily basis. While that is most likely a good thing, as we become more tolerant of others and more respectful of their beliefs, that creates a unique predicament with old social media posts that were once considered "socially acceptable" but now are deemed unacceptable. It's one thing if someone tweets about something that can be construed as offensive in this time, but how do we handle older posts, often six or seven years old that are instigatory. For me, this causes me to take a closer look at the costs and benefits of posting on social media at all. I rarely tweet at all, and if I do it is simple commentary on sports. I worry that something I say because I am feeling a certain way at one point in time could be used against me in a job interview or something in the future. Perhaps I am too niëve  and I have nothing to be worried about. But maybe I do.

Even yesterday in a group chat with many of my friends, people began to post embarrassing photos from many years ago on Instagram. While none of these photos were offensive or anything like that, it obviously hurt the person whose photo was being  poked fun at. While there is no definitive answer to the age old question of whether social media is "good" or "bad" this certainly adds another wrinkle when thinking about dangers of social media.

Creating an Intriguing Podcast

The most interesting thing I discovered about the episode was how much of an impact the work of Bell Labs has on our lives today. In listening to the description of the amazing machine from the World's Fair in 1939, I immediately assumed that all of its technology was incredibly outdated. However, I was amazed to learn that the technology is very important to the use in our phones today. Furthermore, I was also amazed with how quickly Bell Labs created such a security machine under such a time crunch. With the safety of the entire world possibly at sake, they were able to create the SIGSALY machine which allowed safe communication across the ocean.

I was very impressed with the noises used in the background of the podcast that related to the topic at hand. For instance there were man clips of conversations between FDR and Churchill, and also instances where the Voder was demonstrated. This helped to not only give the listener a better idea of what happened, but also to make it a much more enjoying podcast rather than just hearing one person talk for the entire time. Even the background music provided a nice contrast to the voice of the speaker.

The producer made the technical aspects very understandable by not assuming that the listener knew about the topic at hand, and therefore thoroughly explaining each step of what happened. By doing this the audience was able to understand complex and confusing things, such as the Voder, without ever seeing an image of what is like. I was very impressed with the podcast because I looked up what a Voder looked like after the podcast and it was very similar to what I had pictured. This means that the producer did a good job in making the concepts very accessible.

After listening to this, I would like to do my podcast on something similar, an obscure machine or company that was incredibly important in coding/decoding messages. I think I would like to do my podcast on something that is more important to present times, but then again it can be overstated how important the products from Bell Labs are to our lives today, for instance by making our cell phone transmissions work.

 

Not a Single Factor is Responsible for the Allied Success

Although Singh argues that the primary reason that the Allies had success over the Germans in the cryptographic war, I believe that this simplifies the argument way too much. While undoubtedly the Germans were overconfident in the security of the Enigma machine, this was only a problem when they became lazy and began to repeat messages, giving the Allied cryptanalysts a chance to  break their codes.

Perhaps one of the most overlooked parts of the Allied codebreaking success was the determination and resilience of the code-breakers, and on top of that how diverse they were. As a group consisting of people from so many different backgrounds, their different ways of approaching the deciphering were no doubt crucial in the Allies breaking the German codes. Furthermore, it can not be overstated how impressive the resilience of the codebreakers was. Most days they worked fruitlessly for hours upon hours in an attempt to crack the codes and got absolutely nowhere. And then as soon as the clock struck midnight all of their work from the day before was rendered useless and they had to start all over again. While this would drive most people mad, the Allied cryptanalysts continued to decipher day after day.

Finally, the Allied codes were so strong because of the rarity of the Navajo language. Trying to understand a language without any indication of what any words mean is nearly impossible and the Germans were certainly among those who discovered this. Furthermore, when they combined the language with code words it became impossible for the Germans to break it without capturing an actual Navajo who would be able to decipher the messages for them. This brilliant way to securely transmit messages for the Allies proved to be a crucial part in them winning the war.

What Would You Give Up to Feel Safer?

This question posed at the Newseum is a very important one in the world we live in today. Indeed, ever since 9/11 the amount of government surveillance has increased exponentially, threatening our privacy in all aspects of our lives. The formation of the USA PATRIOT Act gave the government the surveil its citizens in the name of preventing terrorism, yet there is still much skepticism from myself and others about whether or not these drastic measures are worth giving up our freedom over. I believe that since this America, we should be entitled to certain freedom that are explicitly laid out in the Bill of Rights, such as the protection from unreasonable search and seizure. Is the government tracking your every Internet search, phone call or text message not unreasonable? I certainly contend that it is unreasonable. I do not consent to the government tracking my every movement because even if it is to save one or two lives, I do not think it is worth it. Sure we could take away every gun and weapon from a citizen and have a dictatorial society to prevent crime but is that the place we want to live? I think America is so unique and so special because of the rights that we have and I do not want to see those taken away. That is why I completely favor measures to increase our privacy and freedom rather than security and surveillance. 

The Greatest Cipher

Louis XIV's Great Cipher was unique in its complexity, far far beyond the other ciphers used during the time period. Indeed at the time, by far the most popular type of cipher was the mono alphabetic substitution cipher, yet that is easily deciphered by a good cryptanalyst through the use of frequency analysis.  The Great Cipher was much more than a simple mono alphabetic substitution cipher in that it utilized numbers to represent letters, but on top of this, the numbers didn't just stand for letters they also stood for syallables. Since there was not a 1 to 1 relationship between letters and the cipher alphabet, it was nearly impossible to perform traditional frequency analysis on the cipher text. Furthermore, the cipher was brilliantly created with cipher text indicating to ignore the previous syllable or letter, making it tricky for any decoder to figure out what was part of the cipher and what was simply nonsense.

Perhaps the deciphering of the Great Cipher is even more impressive than the creation of such a complex cipher. The amazing creativity and brilliant thinking that Bazeries had to even consider looking at syllables has to be commended. Furthermore, for him to harp on a repeated phrase and be able to figure out what it meant is incredibly impressive. This also illustrates how amazing the cipher was in that it took Bazeries over three ears to crack it even with his uncanny ability to recognize that it is comprised of syllables.

The Land of the Free and Home of the Brave

This weekend marked the start of NFL football season, and for an avid fan like me it's one of the most exciting weekends of the year. However, I want to talk about what happened before the games rather than what happened during them, specifically the national anthem. At the close of each rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner, the words "The land of the free, and the home of the brave" are sung." Those words, that I've heard dozens, if not hundreds of times, took on a different meaning when I thought about my recent reading of Cory Doctorow's Little Brother.

In the society of Little Brother, the "land of the free" simply is not that; rather it is a land of oppression, violations of rights and tyranny. Following the detainment of Marcus and his friends, Marcus is accused of being involved with the terrorist attack simply because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time. As a result, many of his basic rights guaranteed by the Bill of Rights are taken away. Marcus even says on page 55 "you're talking about defending my freedom by tearing up the Bill of Rights." These rights are fought for every day by men and women who risk their lives to keep this the "land of the free." Once we lose our freedom, we lose everything that America stands for.

On Page 56, Marcus says "The truth is I had everything to hide, and nothing," which immediately had me think about our discussion in class the other day. One of the arguments in favor of Vanderbilt surveilling our data was that "if he we had nothing to hide then why should we care." We should care because this is the United States of America. Because this is indeed the "land of the free" and certain freedoms are guaranteed to us by the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. My counterargument to anyone who says we shouldn't care about our privacy being compromised if we have nothing to hide is to ask them whether or not they would be consent to the government searching their dorm, or their house every day; nearly everyone would object. I believe that our digital footprint should be treated the same way. After all, this is supposed to be the land of the free, and that freedom should extend to all aspects of our lives.

Protection from Unreasonable Search and Seizure

The Constitution of the United States of America exists to protect the citizens of this nation from the government. Indeed, the Fourth Amendment states that citizens shall not be subject to unreasonable searches and seizures by the government without a warrant. Data mining on college campuses violates this Amendment and is clearly an illegal search. There are soldiers are fighting around the country as I write this, working to keep us safe and protect our liberties that are exclusively found in America. They aren't risking their lives so the government can have more control over the people, but rather to secure the liberties of every citizen. And while the argument is often made that these searches in the form of data mining are designed to keep us safe, in reality they invade our privacy and our rights.

In Michael Morris's essay entitled "Mining Student Data Could Save Lives," it is evident that Morris is in favor of mining student data. For instance, he says by utilizing data mining software, colleges "will surely come much closer to that goal" of preventing crime. Morris argues that due to the fact that there have been so many attacks on college campuses, we should do anything to protect students, even looking at their internet data. But without a 100% detection rate, innocent students will be undoubtedly be victimized by this software and labeled as potential attackers, even if they have done nothing wrong. This violates our right to due process and goes against everything that we stand for as a country.

For me, the argument of privacy vs. security can be a very personal one. Having a father who was in the Marines and countless friends who have served, I often think about young men and women risking their lives for our freedom. Sure we could strictly monitor everything that everyone does, but is that worth neglecting the very freedoms that we worked so hard to earn back in 1776 and defend every day? I do not believe it does. If we were to search everyone's house then we could find people making bombs before they used them, but first of all that isn't legal, and second of all that isn't the way that we want to live. In the argument of privacy vs. security, I strongly disagree with Morris's argument and firmly stand on the side of privacy and keeping our rights in tact.

A False Sense of Security Plus Treason Equals Death

Portrait of Mary, Queen of Scots. BBC

Portrait of Mary, Queen of Scots. BBC

In Singh's The Code Book, the story of Mary Queen of Scots illustrates the dangers of having a false sense of security.  There are countless examples throughout history, but perhaps the most well-known example of a false sense of security is George Washington's crossing of the Delaware to attack the British on that fabled December night in 1776. The British had wrongfully believed that Washington's men were incapacitated and unable to attack, and as such they let down their guard. As we all know, Washington and his men pounced at this opportunity and were able to turn the tide in the American Revolution. If the British had not become so complacent and careless in their actions then the very country we live in probably does not exist today.

In this same sense, Mary and her fellow conspirators "let down their guard" by explicitly detailing plans of attack, names of conspirators, and other incriminating information in their letters. In saying that "The cipher of Mary Queen of Scots clearly demonstrates that a weak encryption can be worse than no encryption at all" (Singh 41), Singh is telling us that if someone believes they are using a strong encryption system, even if it is easy to crack, then they will be apt to send important information via the encryption system. However, if one knows that an encryption system is insecure, then they will be much more likely to restrict the information in the letters. In Mary's case, she fell victim to believing that her encryption system was much stronger than it was, and as a result once Thomas Phellipes easily deciphered the letters, she was sentenced to death. If Mary's group of conspirators had known their code could be easily broken, perhaps they would have been able to successfully take back the throne.

While this would seem to suggest to others using cryptography that they should not send any incriminating information via enciphered text, at the same time there might not be a better option. One has to wonder what better alternatives Mary and her co-conspirators had, even if they had known that their code could be broken. The letters were all being intercepted anyways, so in reality the plan could never have succeeded. However, Mary did teach anyone contemplating the use of encryption at least one thing:

A False Sense of Security + Treason = Death

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