The History and Mathematics of Codes and Code Breaking

Author: lala1

Zodiac Killer on the Loose

I thought that the podcast about the Zodiac Killer was extremely interesting and very well done. I think that one of the most important aspects of this podcast was the use of music. The creator of the podcast clearly knew how dark the subject matter was and chose music accordingly. I liked how the music was not overpowering either so that the voice of the narrator was crisp and clear. I think that finding this balance is difficult, and I think they did a very good job with it.

I also really liked their use of storytelling. Nowadays, we are so used to the movies where everything is shown to us, so explaining in words the gruesomeness and eerieness surrounding the Zodiac killer's murders is a difficult task on a podcast especially. They did a very good job with the storytelling, and overall their podcast was pretty stellar.

If I had to make one small critique though, it would be that at a couple of places there were a few short pauses/ stumbles that drew away from the rather fluid nature of the podcast, if these were cleared up, I think it would be very hard for me to tell their podcast apart from the professional ones.

A comment on another student's analysis of how the enigma was broken.

( (link to original blog post)

In his blog post titled "An Interdisciplinary Approach," Browkm10 shows how the creativity of the minds in Bletchley park heavily contributed to the success of the team. We talked about in class how breaking a cipher involved a certain degree of logic, creativity, and skill. Browkm10 discusses how all the major players like Turing brought diverse expertise to the table. He talks about how there were chess champions, bridge builders, and machine experts all congregated together working on the same problem. He ultimately argues that it was the combination of creativity and logic that made the defeat of the German enigma possible.

I do think, however, that he/she left out an important aspect that had to take place for the enigma to be broken, which was luck. The cipher was only able to be solved because of a few key mistakes that were made by the Germans. They didn't allow switchboards to have connections to adjacent letters, which lowers the total number of combinations by a huge amount. They also had rules about scambler placement that had the same effect. It was the logic and creativity that made breaking the enigma possible, but there were a good amount of mistakes made by the Germans as well that contributed to the Enigma's demise. I think overall the blogger made some very good points, but I think that this nuance's his/her argument.


The Morals of the Zimmerman Telegram Decipherment

  1. When the Zimmerman telegram was deciphered by the cryptanalysts of Britain’s Room 40, Admiral William Hall decided not to tell American President Woodrow Wilson about its contents because doing so might let the Germans know that Britain was capable of breaking their codes.  Given the danger posed to America by the unrestricted U-boat warfare indicated in the telegram, was this ethical of Admiral Hall?

I think that in a time of war, it is very hard to judge the hard decisions of people in power. In all wars, there will be casualties, and the hard fact of life is that in war the generals and people in charge need to minimize overall losses, not save every life. I think that overall the decision was ethical because strategically it had to be done. They chose not to tell President Wilson because they knew that the Germans were starting unrestricted submarine warfare and that the US would most likely join the war because of this. This was a calculated decision that paid off for the British in the end. Having the codes to someone else's messages is extremely valuable, much more valuable to the British than having the US in the war a few weeks sooner. This was most definitely the strategic decision for the British. With these codes, they could be able to save countless more lives in the future by intercepting key attacks. Even with the case in World War II, the Allies had to let certain attacks happen that they knew were planned so that the Germans were not tipped off about the cracking of the Enigma. Although it is a very tough decision, I think that the British made the right decision in not telling the US about the Zimmerman Telegram.

A Dissection of the Round Table with the General and the Chancellor

I thought that this lecture was very interesting, although it didn't really focus on what I thought it was going to focus on. Instead of talking about the debate between surveillance and privacy, they mainly focused on political issues as well as the art of on the ground surveillance. The general was the former director of the CIA, and he talked a lot about how the new presidency has shaped intelligence gathering. I thought he made an interesting point when he categorized the presidents by "archetypes," and showed that most presidents fit into one of a few categories. He characterized President Trump as a "Jacksonian" and President Obama as "Jeffersonian." By this, he meant that Trump was a populist that was holding America back from the inevitable. He compared Trump to William Jennings Bryan who ran in an election where he pushed that the US currency should be based on silver and not gold and how the US should be more agrarian and less industrialized. Now, he said he believes that industry as we know it is changing and that the US needs to adapt to these changes.  He said that industry that Trump is only delaying this process. It was also interesting how the General thought that Trump was going to change intelligence gathering. He said that as of right now, the US relies on a lot of liaisons for intel gathering and that in the future, due to the America first policy, it may be necessary to have more autonomy when it comes to on the ground surveillance. Although this debate didn't focus on the idea of privacy vs. surveillance, the General did talk about the work that the CIA does on the ground and how the President and the government, in general, can influence the way that this has to be carried out. Although this lecture was not what I was expecting and didn't really relate to our class that much, it was still very interesting.

Newseum Privacy vs Security Debate

I thought that this photo was very interesting since it captured a lot of the same thoughts that was as a class had after reading Big Brother. It also reminded me a lot of those word maps/clouds that show the frequency of words in a given text. I saw the word privacy pop up a lot, but I didn't see so much about Security. Another very interesting thing on the board that was kind of hard to read was the Benjamin Franklin quote. He said that "those who give up essential liberty for a little bit of security deserve neither security nor Liberty." I thought that this was a very powerful quote that relates to the topic, and I also think that Cory Doctorow would very much agree with it. I think that the governmental agencies that collect data get a bad reputation to a certain extent. I think that it is very unlikely that I have an FBI agent devoted to monitoring my life. What is more likely is that my data is being used to create a large sample of data which may be helpful to them. I forget the name of the trick, and I can't find it online, but I know that in accounting if the number of 1's that start the numbers in the books is off by a few standard deviations, then it is likely that someone has cooked the books. Terrorism may be much more difficult, but there may be situations like these where it is useful to have metadata.

Unbroken ciphers and their appeal


I think part of the allure is the chase. Rarely is there ever an unsolved mystery with such a big bounty. I think that people are drawn to both the mystery and the award. the same is true for unsolvable math problems. If you solve them you get fame and glory, but you also get the satisfaction of solving something that nobody on earth has solved before. I think another part of the Beale cipher is that you don't necessarily have to be an expert cryptoanalyst to solve it if it is a book cipher. If anyone guesses what the book or text the cipher is based on, they will be able to solve the cipher with ease. This means that there is not a huge advantage to having an extensive background in cryptoanalysis. I think that there is also an advantage when something is unsolvable to have an outside perspective. It is entirely possible that all the cryptoanalysts approach the problem in a very similar manner, and they negate other ways to solve the problem. Someone with an outside view on the field may have an advantage because they might come up with a completely original way to solve a problem. This is why there is still a large allure to trying to solve an unsolvable problem like the Beale cipher.

Little Brother: A Hyperbolic Representation of Security vs. Privacy

On page 91 in the novel, while the narrator, Marcus was in the Turkish Coffee shop, he was dumbfounded by the idea that based on the new Patriot act, people could track his purchases on his debit card. He posed the rhetorical question to the reader, "You think it's no big deal maybe? What's the problem with the government knowing when you buy coffee?" This is essence to me sums up the idea of privacy vs. security, because it shows how when taken to far, surveillance becomes utterly useless. There is no good that can come out of the fact that the government knows when you buy coffee. Under no circumstances would that ever become relevant in figuring out who terrorists and criminals are. Furthermore, even if it somehow contributed in the most minute way to a terrorist prediction algorithm, someone could just pay cash and get away with it anyway.

Anyone who is trying to plan some sort of nefarious attack is probably going to take the time to figure out what the government is tracking. For example, if the government tracks bank transactions worth more than 10,000 dollars, then a halfway smart criminal would make 20 small transactions worth 500$ each, and the only people that would get flagged would be innocent. If the government is tracking debit card purchases, then a criminal will just use cash. In the end, all this will do is lead to violations of the Bill of Rights and waste a huge amount of money creating a haystack with no needles in it. This is why this particular section in the book stood out to me.

Is "increased safety" worth the loss of privacy on college campuses?

Arnie: The issue of privacy vs security is one that we have been asking and will continue asking in the age of the internet, and this question arose in the article by Michael Morris. College campuses and schools are a unique place where this issue manifests itself. Students use university wifi, and with this, a university could theoretically track patterns. This idea is very similar to the idea of the patriot act that was a matter of contention in the past. In the patriot act, the FBI and NSA had the right to access data to try and prevent terrorist attacks. They spent millions/billions of dollars surveilling people, but according to some sources there were no major terrorist attacks that were prevented by this.

I personally have no issue with people trying to use my data or the data of others to get a better picture of who we are and tailor ads towards our preferences. I am of the opinion that if something is on the internet, you need to be prepared for everyone to have access to it and take advantage of it (as scary as that is). I think that colleges could access data, but I think at the end of the day I don't think that there is any algorithm that could catch a huge amount of these cases, but even if a few lives are saved it is worth it. However, in most cases, I think that it will be a drain of money because it will be very hard to create a program that is capable of catching a majority of cases.

The Achilles Heel of Mary Queen of Scots: A Weak Cipher

Arnie: Why is a weak cipher worse than no cipher at all?

The cipher that Mary Queen of Scots used in this chapter was able to be broken, and in this case, having no cipher at all would have been better than the weak one that was used. He says that because they believed their communication was secure, the Queen and her accomplices became too complacent. The contents of their letters were far more incriminating because the conspirators believed that even if the letters were found, they would most likely just look like gibberish. With frequency analysis, even a somewhat strong cipher can be cracked over time if someone has the right resources, which the Queen of England most definitely did. If Mary had just used cryptic language that was vague and concealed the letters in the same manner, even if they were found, they would have been much less incriminating and she would most likely not have been sentenced with the death penalty. Because of her complacency and her blind trust in the cipher she was using, she let down her guard, and this ultimately led to her demise. This is what Singh means by the fact that sometimes a bad cipher is worse than no cipher at all.

I think that the same thing could be said about passwords on the internet today. If something has a weak password it may be worse than having no password at all. If there is a hacker trying to get your data, they are probably more likely to try and hack into password protected websites, because that is where more sensitive information is normally stored. If your password is "12345678," it may be worse than having the same information on a non password protected website because hackers may be less likely to look there. I think even in the modern era, the idea that no cipher is better than a weak one is still applicable in some senses.

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