The History and Mathematics of Codes and Code Breaking

Author: milfored

I Don't Really Think There Was Difference

What was the difference?

There was none! The environment that Mary Queen of Scots experienced is quite the same compared to the environment leading up to the development of the Vigenère cipher. In fact, it even states in the book that Vigenère’s publication of Traicté des chiffres happened “ironically… [in] the same year that Thomas Phelippes was breaking the cipher of Mary Queen of Scots.”

Even Mary herself was aware of how insecure the code was. It was just that (1) she could not come up with a better method of encryption and (2) she never questioned if her beloved messenger was a double-agent for Thomas Phelippes which he in fact was.

All of this just goes to show how much of an edge the cryptanalyst had over the cryptographers. No matter how much variation the cryptographers tried to invest into their monoalphabetic, the cryptanalyst could break them easily with one tool — frequency analysis.

However, this was only until Vigenère took the works of three other men to create a cipher that gave the edge back to cryptographers. With it, cryptanalyst would be left to sit hunch-back over their desk for years. It is only a shame however that his amazing cipher would not be appreciated until another two hundred years.

"Hooded Gas Mask" — Just Another Google Search

If my reaction to Chapter Four could be summarized in three words, they would be “hooded”, “gas,” and “mask.”

Separated, those are just three innocent words, but if you put them side by side, suspicion would loom over your head as if you were its shadow. “Suspicion… by who” you may be wondering. Well, in my case, it could be the suspicion of those who monitor the internet here at Vanderbilt University, and in a day and age of heightened concern over public safety, that is not the kind of attention you want directed at you.

You see, although those three words can be read back in Chapter Three, it did not peak my curiosity to google them until I had reached Chapter Four. There I was at 2:00 A.M. on a Friday morning looking up images of hooded gas mask — not necessarily something your average college student would need. To me, I was merely being curious, but somebody else may have thought otherwise; they may have thought I was planning to recreate the tragedy that happened at Virginia Tech several years ago.

Once I became self-aware of how weird it was for me to be googling “hooded gas mask,” I closed all my tabs, deleted my history, and reverted back to my daily browsing of Reddit.

Unfortunately, Marcus did not have this opportunity, for he was caught “at the wrong place at the wrong time.” Trapped on the scene of America’s worst terrorist attack while unrelatedly being a tech-wiz as well, Marcus was detained by Homeland Security for being a possible threat to the U.S. After an uncomfortable ride by truck and boat, he and his friends were taken to an isolated location. There, he was asked to unlock all of his gadgets and logins, one by one — each unlocked gadget or login granting him an additional privilege. First, he was asked to unlock his phone to which he wanted to say “no,” but he eventually complied. The next day,  he was asked to unlock his email to which he complied without resistance. Then the day after that, he signed some papers (hesitantly) and was released from custody, but his interrogator made it clear that Homeland Security would continue to watch him.

Throughout just a few days,  Marcus endured a terrible scrutiny of his entire life — all because he was “at the wrong place at the wrong time.” If Vanderbilt had just endured a similar tragedy that the U.S. did in this book, would I be subjected to a similar treatment just for looking up “hooded gas mask” out of curiosity? The thought is unnerving.

I have always been a guy to say that we should put security over privacy without question but not after finishing this chapter and certainly not after the finishing book.

Is Privacy Worth It?

“But if colleges use the crystal ball that's available to them, they will surely come much closer to that goal.”

Throughout the article, “Mining Student Data Could Save Lives,” Michael Morris, the author, made many arguments, but his central argument was that college campuses should in fact mine their students’ data. That is the “crystal ball” that he says is available to them while the “goal” he mentions is to stop large acts of campus violence.

Now Morris does in fact make the argument that mining students’ data could help college campuses prevent large acts of violence, but that is only meant to draw attention to the main issue which is the fact that many college campuses are actually reluctant to mine their students’ data for various reasons. That is where Morris makes his central argument being that college campuses should in fact mine their students’ data. He addresses the counter-argument that privacy is in question but rebuts it by explaining that college campuses use algorithms that only extract “usable” data. He addresses another counter-argument that mining students’ data may be  met with the backlash of a policy breach but rebuts it as well by explaining that the Department of Education revised the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (Ferpa) where colleges would have more access to the information of students who raise serious concern.

I, for one, agree with Morris’s argument. As he himself has already stated, we as a society have been waiving our online privacy for our increasing indulgence in online services over the past decade now, and we cannot simply just go back to the way things were. To me, it would be outrageous having to mourn the death of a fellow classmate while knowing it could have been prevented by the college campus. At some point we just have to take a deep breath and decide what is more important — making sure that my routine life as a college student is kept private or stopping the next “School-Shooting” headline.

...How Singh Makes Cryptography Interesting

Cryptography — we have seen it everywhere, from the movie screens to the morning news. In fact, so much so that you might even begin to get tired of hearing about it. You may just start to associate it with a couple of things that are easy to remember like The Imitation Games or the NSA (National Security Agency), but that right there is the problem: Mary Queen of Scots, Julius Caesar, Elizabeth I, Xerxes — do these names sound familiar when you think about cryptography? Probably not. That is why Singh chooses to introduce them in Chapter 1.

Upon opening the book to the first page, you, the reader, are immediately introduced to a grim scenario where Mary Queen of Scots is standing trial for a plot to assassinate Elizabeth I. Only one thing remains in question: the contents of an encrypted message that Mary sent to her alleged conspirators. Singh wastes no time in telling you that the letter actually does incriminate her of the crime, but now you are left wondering whether Elizabeth’s court will actually break the encryption. Immediately, your attention shifts from the contents of the letter to the cryptography around it and thus an excitement is born.

If Singh had chosen to start his book off in a later time with more classical examples of cryptography, the reader would not be as captivated as they are by the examples and times his book starts off with now.

It is this excitement for cryptography  that most forms of media fail to elicit out of people, yet Singh manages to do so within the first, two pages a book. That excitement eventually fuels more curiosity as the reader realizes that they have only read about the fundamentals — substitution and transposition — which beckons the question, “what else is there to learn?”

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