The History and Mathematics of Codes and Code Breaking

Author: Carson (Page 1 of 2)

Essential Arugements in Security vs. Privacy Debate

As a notetaker, I hope to hear arguments by both sides that provide answers for the more philosophical questions behind the debate. I see both sides of the privacy vs. security debate, but I definitely lean towards privacy. However, since I come from a point-of-view that's on the fence for certain issues, hearing one of the sides provide a really solid answer for one of those heavy hitting points could tip the scale.

One such point for the surveillance side that I myself would love to have a counter for is in regards to the inherent nature of government. Above all, the United States government is supposed to ensure the well-being and prosperity of its citizens. Yet, how are they able to carry this out without having a wide latitude of electronic surveillance? Even the most seemingly normal people can go on to commit atrocious acts, so would it not be in the best interest of the people to be able to keep some watch over the citizens? I am not even sure that there is an exact answer for this because, at the end of the day, the answer comes down to personal belief on a person to person basis.

An argument made by security that I would like to see countered is the fact that those for security seemingly overvalue the threat of terrorism. In reality, terrorists are a rare occurrence, so why should many have to suffer for one?

Overall, I look forward to listening from the sidelines as the topic is debated. The side that can find really concrete answers to questions along these lines will be able to make the best argument in my opinion.

A Surveillance Story That Hits at Home

In Radiolab’s podcast, Darknode, the story of the “suburban Boy Scout turned black hat hacker” resonated with me the most in terms of the security vs. privacy debate. For starters, the story truly represented how “you either die a hero, or live long enough to see yourself become the villain” (The Dark Knight Rises). In today’s society, we are surveilled - plain and simple. So, what I found so compelling, was how Radiolab was able to portray that no one is immune to this new era of life and anyone can become part of it. Specifically, in this case, the person being surveilled eventually became the one executing the surveillance; I personally took it as his form of “rebellion” even though he was not necessarily as drastic as the friend that initially introduced him to the concept.

The second reason that this story resonated and made such a strong case with me is because I have actually lived the story being told. When I used to be much more active in my internet explorations, I actually encountered, and was friends with, many “script kitties” (as described in the podcast these are scripters who are able to take advantage of just enough of the tools available to scrape the surface of hacking). What I found fascinating, is the story and development of how botnets came into existence and how they initially had a more innocent origin. I was also able to piece together that his reference to “hitting people off the internet over video games” was a reference to a term I became very familiar with called DDoSing. It was truly amazing hearing an experience so similar to my own that was able to shape the course of someone’s life.

Overall, this section of the podcast furthered my opinion of how the issues of privacy vs. security are changing the way humans interact in today’s society.


Striving for Privacy

In danah boyd's book, It's Complicated, one quote that stood out to me was when she stated, "for teens that I interviewed, privacy isn’t necessarily something that they have; rather it is something they are actively and continuously trying to achieve in spite of structural or social barriers that make it difficult to do so."

This quote resonated with me because throughout the semester, we have discussed and debated the topic of privacy versus security. In every instance, we looked at a specific example, or fictional scenario like in the case of Little Brother. However, I cannot recall a time that privacy has been looked at from the perspective of the innate state it exists; from the second we are born to the second we die, we are surveilled to a certain degree.

For better or worse, parents are there from the very beginning teaching right from wrong. When one reaches schooling age, it becomes the school, then, eventually an employer. Throughout the duration of human life, someone is always there to answer to. Therefore, achieving privacy becomes something that actually must be strived for if there is any hope of gaining it. It is not impossible, but it's complicated.

After coming to this conclusion, I began to imagine the best way that some level of privacy could be achieved, and I could only land on one answer: power. Which is ironic because in each instance those in power are the ones doing the surveillance - it becomes a pyramid. Sure enough, boyd laid out three methods that can be used to achieve this autonomy and find some degree of privacy with the first stating, "people must have a certain degree of agency or power within a social situation." Yet, we must ask ourselves is those in power truly have privacy? Whose family do you know more about... the Kardashians or someone you call a friend? While power may bring one closest to privacy, I do not think there is a way to achieve ultimate privacy.

I do not have an answer for privacy, and I am not arguing that all forms of it are evil. I just find it interesting that through boyd's interviews, it can be seen that privacy has become a construct of society that we strive for but can almost never have.

Intent - What's the Big Deal?

I do not believe that anyone should be held accountable for the actions of others if they choose to make their software public. Before I explain why, I want to open with this opinion being contingent on one caveat: intent. Unfortunately, intent can be hard to quantify, but I will preface this condition with an example to at least attempt to unpack what I mean by intent.

I believe that if one lives in the United States, whether he or she agrees with the current circumstances or not, the actions taken by that individual should not intentionally inflict harm. They can protest, organize groups, and lobby for change, but the actions taken should and cannotIntent bring harm to others intentionally. Everything can be abused, but the original intent is what is so important to keep in mind. So, for instance, if someone develops a software that could breach the encryption of the NSA and then they distribute the software to terrorist organizations or other countries, they are committing treason. The intent was to breach the NSA and to do harm to the national security of the United States; that was the goal from the beginning.

This is what distinguishes the difference between the actions of someone with ulterior motives and those of PGP. My ultimate impression of the circumstance was adequate summed up when Singh stated that the software of PGP was “so secure that it frightened the Feds” (Singh 314). I feel that the charges brought upon Zimmermann had nothing to do with his intended actions and more to do with the threat he and his software posed. Furthermore, I do not agree with anyone being held accountable because “if you don’t do it, someone else will.” Again, simply look to the case of PGP. The second Zimmerman was unable to continue the development, “engineers in Europe began to rebuild PGP” (Singh 314). In most circumstances, the ball will continue to roll forward. Governments can attempt to ban as much as they want, but someone, somewhere else, will do it.

Analysis of One-Time Pod "Something Out of Nothing"

I listened to the podcast “Something Out of Nothing” by Maria Sellers. In this podcast, Sellers explained how a bi-literal cipher could point to Shakespeare not being who we really think he is.

Overall, I found the entire premise for the podcast to be very interesting. For me, the topic directly undermines a concept I learned in high school, and I am sure the same applies to many others. Due to this, I personally believe that the topic would be easy to present to almost any audience and keep their attention for the short fourteen minutes that it runs.

I also really enjoyed the introduction that featured several different voices. The pacing was nice and everyone flowed together perfectly. The chosen music fit very well, and it was used appropriately. The topic itself was interesting, but these stylistic choices helped me initially engage.  

One technical aspect I appreciated was the reintroduction of Seller’s music as she moved to different “acts” in her podcast. Not only did I find it clever that she chose to section off her podcast in this way, but her use of the music to bring in each section sort of felt like the curtain was closing and then opening into the next point. Based on other podcasts I have listened to, however, I would have loved to hear some more of the music or even other sounds/music.

This podcast has helped me realize how important the topic itself is. I will also be looking into using other voices and music when necessary.

British Pride and Competition

In reality, the knowledge that Britain had deciphered Germany’s codes should have remained a secret for several more decades. Regardless of the reasoning, staying ahead of the opponent, even in a time of peace, provides tactical advantages on many fronts.  I believe, however, that pride and competition with the United States ultimately lead Churchill and the British Royal Navy to publish the information.

A gruesome war that tore through most of Europe had finally come to an end. It was a time of celebration for the countries that had triumphed. Publishing the findings showed the military tact that had been used by Britain and their ability to triumph their foes. It proved the resourcefulness of the country and allowed for a sense of pride to be instilled in Britain’s citizens. This also allowed Britain to show that they had been vital in the victory of the war. To some, it looked like the United States had joined the war efforts, intercepted messages, and swiftly ended the war in a year. It allowed British citizens to not feel like their ally had done everything.

Although Britain allied with the United States during and after the war, superpowers in the world are still each other's competitors at the end of the day. Across the ocean, “Herbert Hoover had been elected President and was attempting to usher in a new era of trust in international affairs” (Singh, 1999, p 141). After the war, in several countries, a lack of transparency between the government and citizens was felt. Since the United States was appearing to be more open with its’ citizens, Churchill most likely felt pressured to respond in some way. By publishing his findings, he was able to show that by keeping some secrecy during the war, Britain was ultimately able to keep the upper hand on Germany. Now, the information was viewed as not being pertinent and it was a good way to loop the citizens in.

If Britain had not revealed this information publically, it is possible that the Enigma machine would not have been utilized by Germany. After all, many were hesitant to adopt new forms of encryption due to cost and ease of use; WWII potentially could have been a far different war.

"The Assault on Intelligence"

General Michael Hayden, the former NSA and CIA director for the United States, was interviewed by Professor Jon Meacham and Chancellor Nicholas Zeppos. Questions regarding national security and the current direction of the U.S. were proposed to Gen. Hayden.

To kick off the interview, Meacham proposed the question, "Does political partisanship and national security have a relationship?" This is when I realized that the debate was entirely a critique of Donald Trump's presidency. I was hoping to gain more insight into some actual non-biased perceptions of national security and their current relationship with the public. Nonetheless, I did find his answer to this question to be interesting. Gen. Hayden likes to classify political figures into groups such as the Hamiltons, Jacksonians, Wilsonians, or Jeffersonians. This allows him to align current political figures with a person that best represents them from history. For instance, according to him, Trump is a Jacksonian; he is not fully for isolation, but most of Trump's policy reflects separation from other nations. Later, he also states that Trump is trying to execute industrial policy in a post-industrial era. He contrasts Trump's Jacksonian characteristics with Obama's Jeffersonian views of nation-building. Whether his portrayal of these two figures is accurate or not, I do like the concept of pairing iconic historical figures with those of the present. It allows me to create a frame of reference for current politics and connect them to the past and see how they worked then and can be translated to the present.

Another interesting point Gen. Hayden made was that the three most important aspects that make the United States what it is are: immigration, trade, and alliances. He then states that since Donald Trump has taken office each one of these areas has seen a sharp decline and citizens will eventually see the effects of their decline. I do not claim to be a master of foreign or domestic policy. I do not even claim to be extremely knowledgeable in the subject. However, after doing some base-level research, such as viewing graphs and reading some statistics, I could not find any solid grounds to which this claim could be absolutely true. Trade, for instance, had a slight increase in the trade deficit. However, in the grand scheme of things, it was really not anything critical based on current and past trends. Also, with the current state of employment in the United States, I believe that this increase makes sense. This was very rushed research though, and to make a more sound counter, I would need to do far more research.

I am sure General Hayden is able to provide wonderful insight into the surveillance versus privacy debate, however, this interview missed that mark. While it may have been his intention to focus only on President Trump, I feel like there was much more to be said on the topic of "The Assault on Intelligence."

America on Privacy vs Security: Give up Everything?

The Newseum's "Voice your Opinion" poster on privacy versus security definitely drew some interesting opinions. While some chose not to take the activity seriously, some of the insight was actually very constructive.

On the security side, most people did not elaborate on their statement. I read a few that were essentially, "Give up privacy for security." There were also several hipster comments that were about spreading love and not evil/hate. Two particular comments stood out to me, however. One stated to "take away as much as necessary to feel safe," and the other stated, "Everything, we have nothing to hide." The first thing that I would love to know is, who made the comment? What background do they come from? Have they always lived in the United States? I feel like one's upbringing has much to do with formulating an opinion on this matter. Regardless though, these two comments really shocked me because I find it very hard to believe anyone would be okay with the government having total control. In my opinion, the first comment is very nieve. There is literally a part of our brain, called the amygdala, that processes emotions such as fear. I wonder if this person would next suggest that we sever this part of our brain until we do not "feel" at all. There is no way to totally prevent uncertain/unfavorable emotions such as safety - even in a Utopia.

The privacy comments on the poster were equally as interesting. For instance, one person said, "Living life is an honor, don't take our freedom away." I appreciated this quote for its simplicity. Life really is a privilege, but one can only take advantage of it if they are free to do so. Which ties into Benjamin Franklin quote: "Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety." This quote is very interesting because he had no way of knowing anything about technology, yet he created such an iconic phrase that can be applied to it.

Academic Integrity Defines You

The Honor Council’s perspective on academic integrity revolved around violations being more than just cheating on a test or collaborating on an assignment. They positioned that how you conduct yourself at a critical time demonstrates the sort of student you are. This idea even extends beyond one’s academic career; it also represents the kind of person one will be after graduation.

The Vice President of the Honor Council, Nitya Venkat, presented a personal example that explains this approach to the honor code. Venkat is an aspiring medical student who wants to practice as a doctor in the near future. She explained that if she has graduated from medical school and is taking her own patientens, they instill a form of trust in her. This is not just the trust that she provides the right medical care, but it is the trust that she has become a doctor through trustworthy means and has the adequate knowledge to provide professional care. A patient’s trust exists because they assume positive intent, but this faith relies on the integrity of each prospective doctor being kept. Venkat stated that this concept extends beyond just the medical field: it can apply to all professions.

Several members of the Honor Council also provided their unique insight into what the honor code was to them and a breakdown of specific characteristics. One aspect that stood out was the fact that the honor code is nothing new. In fact, it has existed since 1875 and used to just be, “On my word and honor as a gentleman, I have neither given nor received help on this examination.” The Honor Council highlighted the fact that it’s changing and adapting to the times; it has always been used to uphold student accountability. After all, everything a Vanderbilt student does is not just a reflection of themselves but the community that they belong to. That is why it is so important to hold students to this standard.

Overall, the Honor Council advised to never be afraid to ask when uncertain if an action could be a breach of the honor code. Following the honor code ensures that one does not rob themselves or the professors and faculty of the investment made in students.

Uncertain Environments Generate Safer Practices

An environment in which one knows he or she must constantly maintain precautions is safer than one where they are unaware of the dangers that potentially exist.  

This concept is exemplified in the case of Mary Queen of Scots by the simple fact that her naive belief that she was speaking in secrecy directly resulted in her death. She essentially signed up for her own funeral by openly disclosing matters of treason. If she had been living in the era in which it was common knowledge that a “codebreaker might intercept and decipher their most precious secrets,” (Singh, p.45) then it is much more likely she would have been less forthcoming with the information she provided in her encrypted messages.

The new environment created was far more advanced than anyone in her time could have predicted. Mary’s generation falls in the era of monoalphabetic substitution, whereas the new age moved on to as many as twenty-six (polyalphabetic). Furthermore, everyone in this new era of cryptography frequently changed their methods. They would not be caught dead using such a basic cipher over a prolonged period of time to transport such crucial information. Even the ciphers used for general business information transported by telegraphs was more secure than the cipher Mary trusted her life with.

The new environment of encryption even allowed for progression in the cryptography field. As ciphers became more complex, more professional codebreakers emerged that continued to prove how difficult it was to create an uncrackable code. In turn, this generated more ciphers and the loop continues from there. Progression did not just make the population more cautious, but it also generated societal growth.

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