The History and Mathematics of Codes and Code Breaking

Author: Oliver Zhu

An invention to win the war

When you think about the World War, there must be a scene or a voice in your mind that broadcasts the radio talks. The classic voice with electronic noises in the movies probably has made an impression. I didn’t know about the source of the noise before. I used to thought that the voices were not clear because of the lack of technology to communicate efficiently; but after the podcast, I learned that those noises were created for data encryption.

The podcast explained clearly how the machine works. The machine can break down a human voice into basic components; then transmit those basic components so that the receiver can recreate the voice on the other side. This invention was marvelous enough to create a new generation. For the first time, sounds can be digitized and transmitted over a long distance. What’s more, it also mixed noises with those components to make the encryption unbreakable. These two innovative ideas were combined together, led to the success of the war.

The producer used different soundtracks so that we can hear different people telling the whole story. This new approach creates a sense of warm and inspiring. We all have the terrible experience of losing focus after hearing a stable and unchanging sound for a long time. This podcast can easily catch the audience’s attention. It feels like having a conversation in front of a bonfire with several knowledgeable scholars. Besides, the producers also presented the original radio sound back to the time of war. When those clips were related to the sound people often hear in the movies, the audience can better understand the ways Voder are used. The lecture will not be complex and boring principle telling in this way, but be a vivid presentation.

After hearing this episode, I’m probably going to consider more about the audience for the podcast episode. Audiences’ interest is always the first thing to think about while making an episode.

Reasons contributed to the fallen of Enigma

In the blog post (, the student proposed an interesting idea that the Allies’ teamwork and creativity outcome the German’s general traits of procedural and rigid. I voted for creativity in the class research on TopHat which asked what trait is more important for figuring out an encrypted message. Cryptography or figuring out encrypted messages should not be like repeating the dull routine of changing letters into encrypted ones. German’s procedure of obeying the rules is probably one of the factors besides their overconfidence that caused their failure in the war against the Allies.

Germans made mistakes when they used too much of repetitive words in their enciphered text. For example, they started every message with the same words to praise their leader. They also used the Enigma machine under some unsuitable circumstances. They even used the encrypting methods for the weather report. Doing this is completely unnecessary at all and is probably just a show-off of their skills. Too many resources are provided to the Allies to decipher the messages. Their compliance made them precise and loyal soldiers, but that’s their disadvantage in the war of ciphers.

In contrast to Germans’ rigidity, the Allies’ teamwork between countries improved their chance to succeed. They also have a born advantage of language. The usage of Navajo language in military encryption was ingenious and made the codes unbreakable. The Allies’ cryptographers can focus more on deciphering German messages rather than worrying about their own message security. Combing German’s disadvantage and the Allies’ advantage, even a machine strong as Enigma will fall.

Ethical? Necessary.

In the movie “The Imitation Game,” there is a scene that Alan Turing and his team deciphered a message indicating that there is going to be an attack on the British Navy. After celebrating for finally able to beat the Enigma Machine made by Germany, they calmed down quickly and decided not to present the message to the British Navy. It's confusing for me at first of why they chose to keep the attack as a secret, but I then understood the importance of keeping some of the messages private for the good of the big picture. It took unimaginable great effort for Turing’s team to figure out how to defeat the Enigma Machine. They can’t risk the chance to let the German Intelligence find out that they cracked the code. If they changed the Enigma Machine into other types of encrypting methods, more damage than a team of warships would be made and the war might have gone in another direction. In special times, some small sacrifices need to be made to win the war.

      It’s just like what Admiral Hall did to President Wilson. If they can’t find a source of retrieving the information that they can explain, the Germans will change the encrypting methods, and the British cryptanalysts will lose the advantage. Is it ethical? It’s probably not. However, it’s the war situation; so it needs to be treated differently. Admiral Hall did this so that the American, the most powerful country in the world, can join the Allies and fight German. It’s the war strategy and leads to an acceptable result. When the messages were spread out later, the damage made can be accepted for the privilege of the great world war.

On the other hand, after the Americans joined the Allies, it’s also helping the Americans if they have access to decipher the German messages. Therefore, it’s necessary for Admiral Hall to keep some messages secret. It’s too much to risk as they will lose all of their achievements the fact that they broke the German Code was known.

Insightful ideas provided by General Hayden

The former NSA and CIA director, General Michael V. Hayden, was interviewed by Chancellor Nicholas Zeppos and Professor Jon Meacham. Before going to the lecture, I thought that the interview’s going to be a debate of “Security versus Privacy.” However, it is more about political views and the current direction of the United States.

During the interview, questions regarding President Donald Trump’s presidency were asked. It’s the first time I heard political figures being categorized into different groups using the name of the representative presidents. For example, he classified President Trump as a “Jacksonian” and President Obama as a “Jeffersonian.” It’s interesting to see the present figures fit into past groups to help understand the current presidential positions.

What I also paid attention to was the general’s view of the trade war with China. He said in the lecture that Beijing is not the enemy. It’s quite interesting to see a director of CIA from the time of George Bush to have a friendly view of the Chinese government. He claimed that trades and connections with China are beneficial for both sides, especially for the United States. Media these days often exaggerate the crisis and conflicts between the United States and China. They want to make the tension seem more intense so that they’ll have more stories to write about. But it's not the real situation. There’s a statement in economic that “Trades make everyone better off.” The positive connection between two super countries in the world will definitely increase the economic growth of each country or even the whole world. That’s the point of global cooperation.

The lecture provided several insightful ideas about the current global situation and developing directions that I never heard before. It’s not so much on the topic “The Assault on Intelligence,” but it’s still interesting anyway.

Would you give up your privacy to feel safer?

     On the whiteboard, I found an interesting quote from Ben Franklin’s: “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.” It’s quite forward-looking to make a statement about this question at that time. From the time or age of Ben Franklin, the communicating ways between people or terrorists are not that sufficient. Traditional methods are used rather than using mobile phones or other modern technology. People at that time do not lose their privacy as quickly as we do nowadays. But they have the sense to protect their privacy. Maintaining security should not be the excuse for the government to spy on our privacy. Just as it doesn’t necessarily mean that we have to disregard privacy so that we can have safety

       When being asked what will people sacrifice for safety, many words appeared on the whiteboard. Some people said they could sacrifice text or email messages and phone calls records. Some people said they would sacrifice everything since they believe they have nothing to hide. Those data seems meaningless to them, but think about what will happen if the data was left in the wrong hands. What will happen if someone that got into a quarrel with you last week had the location of you or what you are texting about with your friends? These things seem easy to lose, but it’s actually your privacy that should not be collected by someone else. Just ask yourself, do you feel safer after you give up your personal data?

         The FBI law’s law enforcement should be aimed to help people and focus on criminals. They are not helping anyone by spying on the privacy of the public.

Winning the right way

In the lecture of Academic integrity 101: Winning the right way. The lecturer showed examples that help us understand the importance and wide extension of breaking academic integrity. The lecture first started with the presentation of the vice president of the honor council, Nitya Venkat, a student from medical school wanting to become a doctor after she graduates. She told us that the way of getting a right job is not about getting the highest GPA, but earning the job the right way. When she graduated and became a doctor eventually, she would want her patients to form complete trust toward her. But how are the patients supposed to trust her if she cheats in the homework or assignments and is not even worthy to become a doctor?

     Then the lecture showed a wide variety of actions that will be considered as plagiarism. In the past, my understanding of breaking the honor code or academic integrity is probably like plagiarism or cheating on the exams. However, the knowledge I learned from the lecture improved my understanding of plagiarism.

     By definition, plagiarism is using thoughts, materials or ideas from another without properly indicating the source; together with copying, changing wording, using a catchy word or phrase, or paraphrasing from another without indicating that source. That’s the first thing I learned in the lecture. That’s quite new to me since, in the past, I sometimes paraphrase something I learned from a source before into my work without indicating it. Reconstructing someone else’s words and put it your way is also plagiarism. It’s hard sometimes to find the source of a sentence you once read or a catchy word that came into your mind, but it’s the right thing to do to respect the producer of the knowledge by citing the ideas.

      As Dean Madison Sarratt once said: “There is nothing complex about our Honor Code. It is as simple as giving your word and keeping it.” A good person is the kind that will do good things when there's no one watching.

What raised the popularity of ciphers among the public

As Singh noted in the book: " In the latter half of the 19th century, there was an enormous growth of interest in ciphers among the general public." Ciphers are used a lot more frequently in people's daily lives. Several reasons helped raise the popularity of ciphers among the public.

      The improvement of technology and educational levels would be one of the main causes. Mathematical methods such as frequency analysis are essential for deciphering or encrypting ciphers. Those methods which were not available in the past began to be recognized and used by the general public, which leads to the flourishing of ciphers in the society.

           The wide uses of ciphering are the most important cause of the rising popularity of ciphers. After several incidents happened, people began to understand the need to protect personal messages of a highly sensitive nature. For people with personal or commercial secrets, sending out ciphered text is the best way for their secrets to be kept. For young lovers in Victoria England where public expressing affection was forbidden, the cipher was a great way for them to communicate with each other. For writers wishing to criticize public figures or organizations, encrypted messages can be sent without being noticed but with the same effect of criticizing the newspapers. For example, The Times once carried a notice without knowing that it was meant to criticize its own paper which was described as a mouthpiece of the government. For letter writers wanting to send out letters with a lower cost, it's much cheaper to send out the message via newspaper using pinprick encryption. The ciphering is used in such a wide range that everyone can make their life easier by using the ciphering methods. That explains why there's an enormous growth of interest in ciphering among the public.

          Curiosity toward uncertainty is also one reason that people are crazy about enciphering. When I first got into the process of deciphering an encrypted message, the sense of completion came to me every time I found out the true meaning of a letter. This sense was even more significant in the 1950s when message encrypting was not used that often. Encrypting appeared only in the science fictions books or used by the government secret agents in the past. Think about the sense of accomplishment when you decrypted some codes which were used by secret agents. The proud when the message appeared between the lines of seemingly disorder letters. The sense of exploration when people use this cool and mystery way to read and send messages was responsible for the rise in interest in the past and also today. Puzzles and other intellectual questions can be seen anywhere. With the technology and mathematical methods further improved, we can say that interest in ciphers among the general public today is even more significant than that of in the past.

Personal privacy need to be respected.

      The scene that hit me the most in the book The Little Brothers is what Winston faced and experienced in the jail and how he reacted to them. Although I heard a lot of rumors about how it works in jail system, it still surprised me of what they can do to a high school student who is probably not an adult yet. All the system, no matter the right of personal privacy or right to have an attorney, even the right to protect the juveniles failed to function  in front of the undecided charge on the teenager. Even worse they treated him badly both physically and psychologically just because of a crime that he was never ever involved in.  “She didn't want me to just unlock the phone. She wanted me to submit to her. To put her in charge of me. To give up every secret, all my privacy.” The sense of despair in the tone is filling all between the words.

       I used to hold the firmly belief that security is much more important than personal privacy. That I can sacrifice my little privacy for the sake of everyone in the society. And that’s probably what I’m gonna do if I’m in Winston’s situation. But seeing how Winston react to military threats. I began to think that my view toward this question is probably too superficial. I only considered my case whose personal privacy doesn’t mean too much for himself. For many other people it might means quite a lot. In this case for Winston it’s not something too much to talk about. “It’s his past doing’s coming back to him.” Instead, for lots of people, no matter the Business man having commercial secrets or even a cook with a secret recipe that made them successful, everyone need to keep something from the others to protect themselves and their results and personal life.It’s unfair for them to keep us their hardworking and daily life for a little safety which is not that approachable. Sometimes it’s even only someone’s trick to be in charge. It felt really embarrassing to let anyone know what you thinking about and know whatever anything happening to you. Just as the metaphor used in the passage of what it’s like to squat on the toilet in the centre of the Times Square. The book changed my view toward this question. Sometimes the sacrifice of privacy to trade safety is not used in a good way, but to monitor and control people instead. People’s personal privacy needs to be respected.

Data mining for the good of everyone

In his essay “Mining student data could save lives”, Michael Morris employed several examples to put forward his argument that college should use data-mining methods to predict and prevent potential crime and violence on campus. He utilized the example that schools are not allowed to use the information in the student’s record before and the benefits after changing the rules to illustrate that data mining is necessary for protection of everyone.

       As the question of privacy and safety been raised again. I personally agree with the author’s view. Data mining, as suggested, can help the officers analyze the students’ online activities and identify when it’s tend to become a threat to the campus. Some people may argue that we will have no privacy at all. However, this is a digital world now. Hackers can easily get people information if them want. Privacy nowadays is not as valuable as it used to be in the past. From my own perspective, I’d prefer to trade that little privacy for the precious safety of my own. What’s more, for students, there’s not so much secret that we need to protect for ourselves. We are not making secret contacts in the old spy movies. It won’t matter if our daily chat with friends was used for data mining. The school only means to help protect the students not monitoring them. Using the “Crystal ball” to “predict the future” can certainly reduce lots of unnecessary loss.

       Data mining can not only prevent the crime but also can help the students in other ways. If the students are showing to much stress or anxious, they can be reached for help if they are too shy to turn for help. We should always hold the belief that the university is thinking the best for us. They are trying to protect and help instead of monitoring or destruction. Overall, if the data mining can work as it meant to be, I do believe that it will be worth it to sacrifice a little privacy for help and safety of everyone.

Cryptography 1

        As the author of the code book, Simon Singh, writes, "Cryptanalysis could not be invented until a civilization had reached a sufficiently sophisticated level of scholarship in several disciplines, including mathematics, statistics, and linguistics.” People’s interest and skills toward all kinds of puzzles including cryptogram are getting developed fast in this day or age . Back into my primary school time ,I saw a sukodu puzzle on the newspaper for the first time. The shape and numbers on it suddenly caught my mind. A great sense of proud came to me when I first learnt and finished the puzzle. Puzzles and cryptography, using its own beauty and sense of mystery ,attracted hundreds of thousands of fans all around the world.

       Learning how to solve these kinds of problems is not a specialization nowadays due to the advancement of the Internet and the high level of education. Higher level of education leads to more ways of creative thinking to solve the problems. For amateurs, they don’t necessarily need to learn the special methods in order to solve the basic problems. Their level of education provides them with enough knowledge to use. Such as the most used letter in the english alphabet is e or some of the most frequent conjunctions like at, or, in and so on. Even amateurs can have fun by themselves solving cryptograms, which is significantly different from the old times when people generally don’t know a lot about languages and mathematics. Getting more amateurs working on their own is a great sign, for more and more people are getting involved into cryptography and are willing to dig further.

         Despite the fact that amateurs can have great fun working on their own, Singh was never wrong about the complexity of cryptanalysis that people need to be trained to be sufficient in breaking codes. The methods of transition and substitution or even more complicated methods still needs several disciplines, including mathematics, statistics, and linguistics for perfection.

        In general, it is a great phenomenon to have so many people interested in cryptanalysis and willing to work on their own to solve it. But they still need more practice and more training to go deeper into this area.

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