The History and Mathematics of Codes and Code Breaking

Author: naughkm1

Assume the Worst

Before the Vigenère cipher, a simple monoalphabetic substitution cipher was the most advanced encryption. This is a weak way of coding however, as an encryption is only as strong as the key used to create it, and tools such as frequency analysis make this easy to conquer. Any code could be broken if the person who intercepted it was well acquainted with basic deciphering methods. The best way to protect your secret message was to assume that anyone could intercept and decipher your code. It was a given that before the Vigenère cipher was invented, that no encryption was completely safe. That being said, not many people realized this and truly thought they were keeping their secrets safe. A perfect example of this is Mary Queen of Scots.

Mary Queen of Scots spent her time imprisoned sending encrypted messages back and forth with a conspiracy group. Mary, along with the rest of the group, ignorantly thought that no one was able to crack their "master" encryptions. As a result they talked about many sensitive topics, especially the coup to overthrow the Queen of England. Their false sense of security led to their demise because, in reality, their code was very easy to break. They thought that their code was unbreakable, however, there was no sure way to know how accurate this claim was. Mary downfall was underestimating the environment in which she lived. She assumed that no one would be smart enough to break her code, but as she soon learnt, an encrypted message can be cracked to spill the secrets it contains.

Needle in a Haystack

In Little Brother, by Cory Doctorow, Marcus's father supports the actions of the police saying that Bayesian analysis is a reasonable and logical response. He believes that data mining is key to crime prevention: "'s perfectly reasonable to conduct their investigation by starting with data mining, and then following it up with legwork where a human being actually intervenes..." (Doctorow 109). Drew begins as an advocate for this tactic but when it is taken too far and used to hurt rather than help he quickly turns against it.

This passage is so interesting because it shows a crucial point to the Security vs. Privacy that is so prominent today. The idea behind this type of analysis is data mining is an instrument and not a weapon. The proper use is to help, in the case of Little Brother, police "sort through the haystack to find a needle" (Doctorow 110). However, the police quickly cross the line when they rely solely on data mining to assess every aspect of a person. They lost the human component that makes their work humane. This passage is relevant to so many other topics too. For instance, the discussion about if data mining should be allowed at colleges and universities contains many key points that are touched upon here. Bayesian analysis could be utilized as a tool to help prevent future school attacks. Data mining can be one of the most helpful resources as long as it is kept in check. Long story short, this is an issue that can be argued for ages and that can never truly been answered. It is obviously wrong to use data mining to invade the privacy of an individual, but it gets extremely complicated when it could mean the safety of the majority.

Safety > Privacy

In "Mining Student Data Could Save Lives", Morris argues that mining data is basically a crystal ball into the future. Data mining will give the ability to notice and prevent potential threats to the campus and community around it. The example Morris uses is a school shooter. If a university can use data mining to monitor students' online behavior, then they can look for warning signs that people may display before they do something harmful to themselves and or others.

One study shows that between the years 2013 and 2015 there were 160 school shootings, with 47 percent of those taking place in a college or university (Everytown Research). Many of these could have been stopped with some preemptive data mining. Yes, it is true that every student has a right to privacy and their rights should be respected. However, the overall safety of the student body is much more important than the possibility of someone seeing your recent search history. Realistically, data mining will be much more helpful than hurtful. A school shooting is not likely to happen in your school. But what if it did? If data mining is allowed, then the likely hood of a shooting happening diminishes even more. The safety of students is a top priority among all universities. The use of data mining would not be a tool to invade a student's privacy, but rather a weapon to counteract horrendous acts.

Modern Cryptanalysis Geniuses?

In The Code Book, by Simon Singh, the discovery of cryptanalysis is discussed. It is explained that without a strong background in core disciplines, cryptanalysis is impossible to achieve. Mathematics, statistics, and linguistics are vital in the development of many methods, such as frequency analysis. Earlier civilizations lacked a certain amount of efficiency in these fields, and that is why cryptanalysis was not discovered until around A.D. 750. The discovery was made in the Islamic civilization during a time when the arts and sciences began to explode with breakthroughs. It took years to become masters of cryptoanalysis, like they were.

It is not uncommon in modern society that an amateur cryptanalyst is able to crack a simple substitution cipher using the same method of frequency analysis, without ever being formally taught it. Are all modern cryptanalysts just naturally born geniuses in the art of code breaking? No, that's not likely. Instead, our society has just developed significantly since the year A.D. 750. People are given a better foundation when growing up in the arts and sciences. Mathematics, statistics, and linguistics are taught to all people, in varying degrees of course, but these fields are still emphasized. Civilization has advanced so far that many people have a basic understanding of subjects, that very few people knew about in ancient times. This is the main reason why amateur cryptanalysts can decipher substitution ciphers with out extensive training. To people in today's day and age it is just a "logical" way to attack enciphered messages, opposed to the people in ancient times who worked tirelessly to unlock the secrets of mathematics.

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