The History and Mathematics of Codes and Code Breaking

Author: sunils

A Killer on the Loose

"A Killer on the Loose: The Zodiac Ciphers" gives an extensive history of the Zodiac Killer and the attempts of the officials at Vallejo at capturing him. I believe that the producers were successful in making a good podcast and kept a balance between the content and the theatrical aspects of it.

The title itself gives the impression of an interesting podcast and serves as a good hook for the audience. Additionally, the background music complements the eerie tone set by the podcast and betters the experience of the audience. The structure of the podcast is such that it seems like an interesting story but is also filled with information and facts which seems like a good way of sharing raw information without causing much boredom. To refer to an example, the segment about cracking the Zodiac cipher seemed to come right out of a dramatic movie but was filled with precise information on the cryptanalytical steps taken.

Finally, I also felt that the conclusion was done in manner that inspired the audience to look up the focus of the podcast. By mentioning different unlikely theories, the producer was able to spark an interest in the different theories behind the identity of the Zodiac Killer. All these factors contributed in making this podcast a good production.

Ethics Versus Strategy

I believe that the decision taken by Admiral William Hall was the right one, even though it was unethical. While it was morally wrong for him to let civilians die for a strategic gain, it was the right course of action to take for a man in his position. He was responsible for winning the war for his country. As an Admiral, he was first a patriot and then maybe a philanthropist. In an epoch of war, his loyalty and compassion was largely towards the citizens of his own country. He believed that the involvement of America in the World War was imminent which meant that giving them this telegram would bear no strategic advantage. Sacrificing a few civilian lives to potentially save several others over the course of the War by intercepting and decrypting German messages seemed like a good bargain to him.

The reason why the unethical choice in this case seemed to be the right choice was that he was in a situation where everyone else seemed to be lacking moral fiber. The Germans, his enemies in the War, were willing to attack civilians and break the rules set up by consensus in international court. To try to follow your conscience in a time of war will most likely cause you to the lose the war since a sense of self preservation always prevails over ethics.

The High Price of Safety

I believe that the whiteboard exhibition at the Newseum was nothing less than a work of art. While it appears to be a forum for people to share their viewpoints, it also shows the array of opinions held by different people with different mindsets. Just in the given display, we see one person uncomfortable with sharing his location and personal texts while another finds it reasonable for the government to go through his phone records and texts. Another still uses a quote to imply that giving up your privacy for security makes you unworthy of both privacy and security. Such conflicting viewpoints serve to be an illustration of just how difficult it can be to find a reasonable compromise.

To answer the question asked by the display, I feel that I am comfortable with giving the government as much information as they need as long as it bears no repercussion in my day to day life. If the the government can guarantee that the information will remain confidential, I don't see why I should be bothered about a stranger going through my phone records. The only flaw I see in adopting the aforementioned approach is the implications of the false positives. Given the current state of technology and surveillance, the number of false positives generated would cause a majority of people to face intervention by the government even when they are innocent. This can be problematic as it directly counters the ideas of safety and security since these victims can feel targeted by the very government they chose to protect them.



The Race Between Cryptanalysis and Encryption

The status quo of cryptography can be accurately represented by a game of tennis between two equally good players. When a strong cipher is developed, the ball moves to cryptanalysis. Upon development of better decryption techniques, the ball returns back to the court of the encryptors. The period in which an event happens in the world of cryptography is heavily influenced by who has the power between cryptanalysis and encryption.

During the time of Mary Queen of Scots, the users of cryptography had little to no faith in the abilities to decrypt, causing them to have  undue faith on their abilities to encrypt. By not giving sufficient credit to cryptanalysis, they did not bother with either reinforcing the difficulty of the cipher  or any sort of counter measures in case the cipher was broken, leaving them in a worse position had they chosen not to encrypt. On the other hand, the situation before the Vigenère cipher was the exact opposite as the strength of any cipher was presumed to be weak. Encryptors were motivated to fortify their ciphers and even after encryption, they would communicate in  ways that would seem senseless without context. Some would even avoid cryptography altogether and find other ways to convey the desired message.

I also believe that during the period of Mary Queen of Scots, cryptography itself was fairly new and unheard of. This meant that almost no one had any idea how to encrypt (and naturally, decrypt) ciphers. After cryptography became more popular, more people explored the avenue and cipher breaking became more ubiquitous. This was another reason for encryptors to strive to strengthen their ciphers.

The Nature of Cryptography

In Cory Doctorow's novel "Little Brother", the passage which resonated with me the most was the one on page 57 where Marcus had just given up his phone password to Carrie Johnstone. In this passage, he begins to explain the essence of cryptography and the reason why it stood out the most was that in that one short passage, he went over almost everything that we have done in historical aspect of our cryptography class.

Firstly, he touches upon the fact that cryptography  used by the common man is just as strong as the one used by the National Security Agency. This is representative of the progress we've made as compared to the cryptography used by Mary Queen of Scots, a topic we discussed in detail as the first chapter of Simon Singh's "The Code Book". In that chapter, we see how niche cryptography was and more so cryptanalysis whereas now it is a ubiquitous phenomenon, very often taken for granted.

Secondly, Marcus talks about how his privacy was in question, again something we have deliberated on as we weighed out the balance between public safety and privacy. Reading between the lines, it is also seen that when it comes to cryptography, having enough resources can always crack the code, regardless of the ethics of the means you use to do so. Just like in the San Bernardino's case, the FBI found a way to get past the encryption, the DHS were able to pressure Marcus into giving up his own privacy, which begs the question that in an absolute sense, can anything ever be kept completely secret?

Finally, Marcus asserts that the best means of measuring the efficacy of an encryption is its prevalence. This argument runs parallel to the ideas of Joseph Bramah's challenge as explained in "Perfect Security-99 Percent Invisible" where he  explains the mechanism behind it and still exacts the public to try and open it. The fact that his lock was not picked for a substantial period of time reinforces the level of security it provided to its user.

The Price We Must Pay For Safety

To set the premise of my argument, I would like to quote Cory Doctorow in his novel "Little Brother" where he uses the phrase " The truth is I had everything to hide, and nothing". I feel this statement expresses the thought that we all have our "dark secrets", so to say, which are inconsequential in the grand scheme of things. However, we would not feel safe if someone were to suddenly be aware of these secrets. Drawing from this idea, I trust that data mining is a viable option provided that the inputted data remains confidential and that only algorithms and computing (not physical analysis by other humans) be used to read the data.

I firmly believe that most people only have a problem with surveillance if it has direct (or indirect) consequences in their daily lives. Taking into consideration that it is in human nature to judge while simultaneously avoid judgement, having people monitor other people, especially the ones they might have to interact on a daily basis i.e faculty surveilling students, might cause a lot of gratuitous paranoia. It is a harsh reality that absolute privacy and complete public safety cannot be achieved together and a bit of compromise has to be made at both ends depending on the situation. In our case, I believe privacy gets the shorter end of the stick. Firstly, the age group in schools is far more likely to be swayed into committing something horrific because they are more emotionally volatile. Secondly, the victims might include young, promising students. Lastly, we must not forget that while campus violence severely affects those party to it, it affects everyone on campus as well, broadcasting a sense of hatred and danger which tarnishes the protective atmosphere an institution is supposed to have.

To conclude, I reaffirm that I agree with ideas portrayed in the essay while setting certain parameters to them which might make it an easier sell. Public safety is essential while a certain degree of privacy must be reserved. It is up to us to come to a consensus on where to draw the line depending on the scenario.

The Encryption That Revealed More Than It Hid

“A false sense of security is the only kind there is”

-Michael Meade

In the epoch of technology and the internet, this particular quote rings painfully true. We read about black hat hacking being ubiquitous yet we don’t think twice before entering privileged information into a website whilst being connected to the free, unprotected airport wifi. Until recently, for years, we’ve utilized WhatsApp and Facebook to text people and have felt safe by adding a passcode to our phones while all that information ran through servers with no signs of encryption whatsoever. I believe the sense of security we felt doing all those perfunctory actions was not a great digression from that felt by Mary Queen of Scots when she decided to be party to the assassination.

When Singh says that “weak encryption can be worse than no encryption at all”, I believe he refers to the fundamental idea that when we encrypt something, we do it under the premise that the information stays protected and confidential and that feeling of safety brings its own set of privileges. However, violation of that safety can cause catastrophic repercussions which would not have occurred had there been no sense of safety in the first place. Coming to our example, Mary Queen of Scots was negligent in her parlance because she had faith in her encryption. If we were to hypothesize, for the sake of discussion, that there had been no encryption, she would have exercised far more caution and might have not said something damning enough to incriminate her in court. Her weak encryption, in a way, did more damage to her case than what would have occurred had there been none.

Coming to the implication of that statement, I believe there is more to it than what meets the eye. Mathematically, the transitive property dictates that if better encryption equals more safety and confidence, and more safety and confidence equals better language and more information, therefore, better encryption equals more information. However, by some disparity in the aforementioned, if that encryption turns out to be weak, the final quantity of the above equation might turn from your best ally to your worst foe. Thus, it is important to realize that cryptography will only work well if the there is a time factor involved and it is safest to always presume that in time, your code will be broken and to contemplate the consequences of that situation.

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén