Cryptography

The History and Mathematics of Codes and Code Breaking

Author: strutte

I've Heard it Both Ways

It’s easy to think of privacy and publicity as opposing concepts, and a lot of technology is built on the assumption that you have to choose to be private or public. Yet in practice, both privacy and publicity are blurred.     (danah 76)

As with many of the issues surrounding cryptography, privacy versus publicity is often viewed as a false dichotomy. Both privacy and publicity are relative terms, though. Without a public realm of information with which to compare it, privacy would not exist. The problem with sharing information publicly, though, arises when we must decide what information we wish to keep private. As discussed in this chapter, the fact that teens wish to keep information private does not indicate that they have something to hide; rather, it is an example of them choosing which parts of their lives to keep to themselves.

In a way, making aspects of our lives public can actually increase our privacy relatively. It is possible for teens to hide behind a screen and only post what they want other people to see, not the whole truth. By choosing which aspects of our lives to keep private, we are realizing that just about everything else can be accessed by the general public. It is a trade-off that many choose to make, but in reality is just a consequence of trying to find a balance between privacy and publicity. In an era where private information is becoming increasingly public, we must work to find a happy medium where we can easily communicate with others while still respecting individual decisions on which parts of life they wish to keep private.

Cryptography by the People for the People

The passage that stuck out to me the most from the novel was Marcus’ description of the use and benefits of cryptography from page 57. Even though it’s at the beginning of the book, this passage gets to the core of how cryptography works for us today. Cryptography is used by everyone because is as accessible to everyone. Thankfully, our government does not have a monopoly on cryptography; “the math behind crypto is good and solid, and you and me get access to the same crypto that banks and the National Security Agency use” (Westerfeld 57). Because it is so widely used, we can be sure of its effectiveness.
The quote continues to discuss how cryptography is useful to us today. Even if we do not have anything to hide, “there’s something really liberating about having some corner of your life that’s yours, that no one gets to see except you.” This reminds me of the article I read regarding the actions of the National Security Agency and invasion of civilian privacy due to bulk data collection. The fact that personal information as well as government intelligence is encrypted using the same means shows that the government has access to all of our information as well. This is not a bad thing; access to this information can be useful in ensuring peace. The question still remains: when does government access of individual data cross the line from protection to trespassing?

Two Steps Forward and One Step Back

While German overconfidence in the strength of the enigma machine was partially responsible for the downfall of the cipher, many other reasons also influenced this ultimate collapse of German enciphering. I think that another main reason that the enigma was able to be broken lies in the fact that the enigma itself was simply a machine. The industrial mechanization of the early-mid 1900’s transitioned the world from simple methods to more efficient and technologically advanced means of production and thinking. These new technologies greatly impacted the way that war was waged; planes and radios and bombs all allowed for higher casualty rates while new cryptographic methods allowed for more methodical enciphering.

Even though this mechanization of enciphering sped up the process, the complexity of the machine was almost outweighed by the simplicity of its engineering. Because it was ‘just’ a machine, the enigma machine was able to be almost reverse engineered by Alan Turing. The industrial shift in society was not just reflected in product manufacturing, but also in the ways that people thought. In one of his many papers, Turing proposed the idea of an automated calculator. While this was well ahead of the technologies available to him at the time, this shows the logical thought process which was now being used to approach breaking ciphers.

In addition, new technologies made it easier for messages to be intercepted. From the telegraph to the radio to modern communication over the internet, lines of communication are becoming increasingly more accessible to spectators. By no means am I saying that technological advances have hindered enciphering, I just think that it is important to consider how the mechanization of society influenced the thought processes and methods of decoding in and the ease with which these encoded messages could be accessed by outside forces.

The Cyrillic Projector: Forums by the People for the People

In addition to the intriguing Kryptos sculpture, Sanborn has produced numerous other sculptures that have fans and amateur cryptanalysts from around the world working together. Elonka has created an entire webpage dedicated to a transcript and discussion of the Cyrillic Projector.  With the help of a series of pictures taken by Randall Bollig, she was able to type up a transcript of the codes on the projector in order for people to have easier access to the information. This has allowed many people to put their heads together so that they can hopefully solve the previously intact cipher.

Much like the combined powers of the great minds in Room 40 and Bletchley park, Elonka’s online forum allows cryptanalysts from across the globe to work together to break through these ciphers. Obviously these people are working to crack the codes because they enjoy doing so—and not because there are lives and national intelligence at stake. If this type of forum existed during the wars, would it have benefited or hindered attempts to encode and decode messages? It would certainly increase the size of think tanks by enabling them to communicate without being physically present, but the easy access to information on the internet would have made it much easier for other powers to catch on to what exactly cryptanalysts were doing. If the technology existed back then, would forums like Elonka’s have been useful in cryptanalyst efforts?

Great or Good: Ethics and the Zimmermann Telegram

While Admiral Hall had some justification for his actions, his decision to keep important information from President Woodrow Wilson and the American government was unethical in the sense that passing that information on could have potentially spared lives. That being said, Admiral Hall had some reasonable justifications for acting in the way that he did. Hall intended to hide the fact that Britain had cracked Germany’s in order to prevent them from changing their cipher. He also came up with a plan to make it seem as if the information had leaked from Mexico so that Britain was not suspected of intercepting the message. Even so, deliberately keeping important information from the US was unethical.

The Zimmermann telegram brings up an incredibly controversial and open-ended debate: can it be justified that the lives of a few be deliberately risked to save the lives of more? The Zimmermann telegram was specifically about unrestricted use of German U-Boats and US involvement in the war, but it ties into overarching themes of wartime sacrifice and the value of truth within government and military. I believe that such sensitive information should be shared as soon as possible with all of those who may be affected by it. Granted, if it had not been for the ingenuity of Britain’s Room 40, Admiral Hall would not even have access to the information which he withheld from the United States. In the end, though, he did have access to this information and knowingly and unethically withheld it from the United States.

Snow(den)ball Effect: NSA More Helpful or Harmful?

Here’s an interesting approach to solving privacy issues: break up the agency charged with the responsibility of maintaining surveillance and security for the entire country. While the premise of the argument may seem counterproductive, Bruce Schneier’s essay “How to Save the Net: Break up the NSA” has some interesting and valid points as to why the NSA may be a hindrance to public security in certain aspects.

I plan to respond to this essay in my paper because it raises some of the big questions underlying the controversies in cryptography. In a way, the battle between developing technologies and still maintaining privacy and secrets has become a bit of an arms race. With newer technologies that open up paths of global communications come newer struggles of maintaining bigger secrets from an ever-growing audience. This also brings about more controversy and ethical dilemmas regarding regulation and security of these communication platforms. I hope to explore these controversies so that I can have a better idea of their everyday implications.

Old News with a New Twist

The continuous development of the human mind and collective knowledge makes it ever more difficult to protect those thoughts and ideas we wish to keep to ourselves. The idea of privacy might seem distant or even unattainable to us today due to the prevalence of modern technologies and new advances in communication. The more information that there is out there, the more people that are trying to find it (and the more bits of information that may slip out).

They key component to understanding the evolution of cryptoanalysis is realizing that we have quite the advantage now. The fact that we know about the wax-coated balls of silk bearing Chinese messages and egg shells with hidden writing shows that we have learned from past attempts and successes of encryption and learned from them (Singh, 5).  It is always more difficult to come with a new way to go about something rather than just adapting a previous process. It took many scholars many years of training in order to figure out how to crack the codes that probably took up just as long to create in the first place.

Humans are natural-born problem solvers and as such our brains are wired to look for order. It may have required “a sufficiently sophisticated level of scholarship” to first create and crack these ciphers, but living in a society in which training in linguistics and mathematics is readily accessible gives us the same advantage that the Islamic empire had (without the years of specialized training). We have learned from the trials and errors of cryptographers long ago and will continue to develop new means of encrypting and decoding messages.

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