The History and Mathematics of Codes and Code Breaking

Author: Abbey

"Literally the Point of Encryption"

Through his sass, Snowden points out that if a government can access encrypted messages, then it isn't really encrypted at all. It's the same idea as cell phone companies providing a "back door" for the government: if the government can get through the back door, so can anyone. There is no "gray area" with encryption; it either works or it doesn't.

-Abbey, Ross, & Parker

Privacy = Trust

Some teens see privacy as a right, but many more see privacy as a matter of trust. Thus, when parents choose to snoop or lurk or read their online posts, these teens see it as a signal of distrust.
-danah boyd
(It's Complicated, page 73)

I can remember in 8th grade when my friends' parents starting joining Facebook, not because they wanted to snoop on us, but because they saw Facebook as an opportunity to reconnect with old high school and college friends. However, some people did see this invasion into the "teen world" as their parents mistrust of them. Until recently, my parents have not had any desire to join social media (now my dad has a Twitter that he uses as a newsfeed for short, quick headlines). But more so than social media, my parents' surveillance of me in other ways has given me the same sense of distrust that the teens interviewed in It's Complicated expressed.

Until I turned 18, my dad received a text message every time I used my debit card, including where and how much. They also have the ability to (and they do) use the location services on my phone to see where I am. In short, if I wanted to go somewhere and do something without my parents' knowledge, it wouldn't be easy. Sometimes, it would seem that they don't trust me to tell them where I actually am and what I'm actually doing, but I'm sure their intentions are to ensure my safety in case anything were to happen.

In high school, I gave up some privacy to appease my parents and follow their rules. But now that I'm at college, our understanding is that unless I go off campus anywhere further than walking distance, I must let them know where I'm going. In other words, they trust me and give me the privacy to go and do what I please around and just off campus, and I expect that they won't betray that privacy by checking my exact location all the time. I think that in all aspects of life, the balance of privacy and trust versus safety and protection is an integral piece of the relationship between a teen and his/her parents. Even if we have nothing to hide, we associate having some privacy with the extent to which our parents trust us.

Why Do We Want Privacy?

"It's not about doing something shameful. It's about doing something private. It's about your life belonging to you" (Doctorow 57).

The idea in Little Brother that made me think the most was the idea of personal privacy and why that is so important. On page 57, Marcus compares a betrayal of personal privacy to a situation where you had to use the bathroom in a glass box in the middle of New York City every time you had to go. Everyone uses the bathroom, but it is a private and personal part of our lives, not something we want to share with everyone. So while Marcus didn't have anything really illegal, and definitely not at all related to the terrorist attack, on his phone, he didn't want to give "severe haircut lady" his password because his phone had private information that was his personal space. Throughout the novel, Doctorow explores the balance of protecting privacy and stopping terrorism. Homeland Security's efforts to find terrorists causes divorces and fights, things brought to light when their privacy was compromised. Xnet begins in the first place so kids can play video games and email away from the snooping DHS. This widespread desire for a private corner of our lives is why cryptography is so prevalent in our lives. As Vanderbilt students, our emails, web browsing, and phone calls are likely (and hopefully) nothing illegal: emailing professors about homework, calling home to parents, and ordering a pizza. But that doesn't mean that we want everyone to be able to see that. Cryptography allows everyone a sense of privacy and a way to create that privacy. However in this novel, Doctorow asks an important question: how much of this personal privacy are we willing to give up in the face of terrorism? Whether you agree more with Marcus or his dad, I think everyone would agree that the government in Little Brother gave far too little respect to personal privacy.

Let's Go De-fense! *clap, clap, clap-clap-clap*

Certainly the Germans' overconfidence in the power of Enigma led to their loss in the battle of cryptography in World War II, and my classmates have brought up many other great reasons: how the Allies worked together, a few genius individuals working for the Allies, the American use of Navajo code talkers, human error on Germany's part, and Poland's (specifically Marian Rejewski) contributions to cracking Enigma. But stepping back from that, I think in the grand scheme of things it comes down to who was playing offense and who was playing defense. In general, Germany was on the offensive: the Blitzkrieg bombing of Britain, the invasions into France, and their U-boats in the Atlantic. This made the Allies often on defense, not entirely sure where and when Germany would attack next. Because of this, I think they found it more imperative to crack Enigma; if the Allies knew when the next bomb would fall, or where German troops were camped, or where the U-boats were headed, they wouldn't be caught by surprise and could be far better prepared to fight back. Therefore they were willing to hire thousands of codebreakers to work at places like Bletchley Park, and invest money in a seemingly crazy machine to break Enigma. Until Enigma was completely broken, Germany did have the upper hand, and they weren't as worried about deciphering Allied messages as long as they kept winning battles and advancing.

When the Allies (thanks to Alan Turing and his machine) were finally able to decipher any Enigma message everyday, British officers recognized the advantage they now had, one that would only be kept if Germany continued to think they were still on offense. So the Allies were very careful to not let Germany know of their success, and only here does Germany's overconfidence in Enigma come into play. Up until this point they had every right to be confident in the secrecy of many of their communications, and it showed as they swept across Europe. But England could never do a perfect job covering up what they knew, and Germany's overconfidence in Enigma led them to ignore that. In the football game of World War II, the Allies defense had intercepted the football and were running for the touchdown, while Germany's offense still thought they were advancing towards their field-goal range and their cryptographic defense was off taking a water break in the locker room.

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The Wartime Gray Zone - Ethics and the Zimmerman Telegram

British Admiral William Hall ultimately made the decision to keep the United States in the dark about the contents of the Zimmerman telegram, but was it ethical? I think the answer depends on whose perspective you view it from.

From the perspective of Great Britain and their military efforts, it was the ethical (and right) thing to do. If Britain made the decrypted telegraph public, or even just gave it to the Americans, Germany would know that their encryption had been cracked, and Britain would immediately lose the cryptographic advantage that they had just gained. Since America was not officially in the war, and was neutral, Britain had no real loyalty to warn President Wilson. Furthermore, the unrestricted submarine warfare would start whether the Americans knew about it beforehand or not, and the British had not completely finished deciphering the message before that date came and went.

From a more global perspective of humanity, it was not an ethical decision. Admiral Hall had the opportunity to warn the United States about attacks that might harm or kill Americans, but he did not. His motives were also partly selfish for Britain, wanting American to join the war and the Allies, giving them a much-needed boost on the European front. In my opinion, a military alliance where countries don't share intelligence about possible attacks against their allies is not a good relationship and is an unethical way to conduct such a "friendship."

Ethics in the midst of a war are never black and white, and the Zimmerman telegram is no exception. Admiral Hall made a strategic and ethically arguable decision in keeping the telegram from the Americans, but William the human made an unethical decision in choosing to not potentially save the lives of innocent people.

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Freedom of the Press Still Requires Bravery - Taking on the NSA

"How to save the Net: Break up the NSA." This is a bold statement for a bold article. Bruce Schneier, renowned cryptographer and writer, bravely authored this article for Wired as a part of the "Save the Net" series, "featuring bold solutions to the biggest problems facing the Internet today." Schneier proposes that the NSA should be separated into its three main components: government surveillance, citizen surveillance, and defense of U.S. infrastructure, and these three sectors placed into different departments. Especially the more we learn about the NSA's reaching power and what they can do, they seem like such an untouchable superpower. I really admire Schneier's audacity to suggest such a radical solution, and I think his ideas make sense. Considering the Snowden leaks, the NSA's international mission should be protected at a military level in the Department of Defense, domestic surveillance goes hand in hand with the mission of the Justice Department, and, Schneier argues, the defense of American infrastructure should be by a new and open organization. I think what we find so intimidating about the NSA is that if they have the power to hack into a foreign government, what would stop them from looking into my personal phone or computer? But we don't seem to have a problem with the military cybersecurity having a similar power. It would be interesting to continue to explore the possible consequences of having a governmental agency that people trust devoted to protecting American citizens online, while the Departments of Defense and Justice combine forces with current NSA programs to secretly do what they need to do to protect us. And ironically, the NSA will most likely see and read this article that was published online, but that's what the freedom of press is all about!

Don't Overlook the History of Seemingly Simple Things

Cryptography and cryptanalysis are two fields whose progress is intertwined; both make advances to either get an advantage over the other or to compensate for a breakthrough the other has made. As societies have progressed, the need for more complex methods of both encryption and decryption has risen along with the complexity of society.

Messages have been hidden and encrypted from prying eyes since the fifth century B.C. (Singh 4), but it wasn't until around 800 A.D. in the flourishing Arab empire that cryptanalysis was invented (Singh 17). Singh notes, "Cryptanalysis could not be invented until a civilization had reached a sufficiently sophisticated level of scholarship in several disciplines, including mathematics, statistics, and linguistics" (Singh 15). But ever since, the battle between cryptographers and cryptanalysts has employed the growing knowledge and technology of civilization, to the point where the decryption methods discovered by the greatest of Arab thinkers is now almost common sense for any elementary school child.

Why is that? Well consider for example how mathematical technology has advanced along with society. The abacus appeared in China as early as 500 B.C., followed by the invention of Arabic numerals in 1202, and just think of all the different models of TI-calculators that can be found at Target now (source). For a young child, counting with Arabic numerals is pretty simple, but the use of more complicated and advanced calculators takes more work and learning. The same goes for code-breaking: basic substitution ciphers can be easily figured out, but more complex codes and ciphers will take more time and effort.

This shows how far society has come in a couple thousand years; it shows how human knowledge builds upon itself to reach even higher. The breakthroughs by Arab cryptanalysts over a thousand years ago sparked entire industries and professions, and who knows, maybe a discovery in 2015 could change the entire future of cryptography and cryptanalysis.

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