Cryptography

The History and Mathematics of Codes and Code Breaking

Tag: ethics

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?

Not Quite Like the Movies

For as long as I can remember, there's always been one thing about action movies that has bothered me above all else: while the bad guys can do whatever they want, without worrying about who they hurt, the good guys have to catch up to the bad guys while also attempting to contain collateral damage. It seemed so unfair to me, but the good guys wouldn't be good if they hurt everyone in their wake (which is one of the reasons why the new Superman movie was so disappointing, but I digress).

In the case of German and Allied forces in World War II, we can assume, for argument's sake, that the Germans would be the "bad guys", and the Allied forces would be the "good guys." If the pattern which caused so much of my childhood angst was being followed, it should happen that fighting the good fight would be a hinderance for the Allies. However it had the exact opposite effect. The cause that the Allies were fighting for, and the conviction that they held to complete their cause, was a major factor in their success with cracking the Enigma machine.

Singh mentions himself that motivation is a driving force in cryptography: in periods of peace, cryptographic breakthroughs are so few and far between simply because there is no need for them. In the case of Allied efforts, there was much need to break the Enigma machine. Lives were being lost at an astonishingly fast rate, and without knowledge of German plans, there was little chance for the Allied troops to make any gains. Both the higher ups and the cryptanalysts themselves understood that the stakes were incredibly high, which proved to be an incredibly motivating factor.

The need for information proved to be a very beneficial asset not only motivationally but also resourcefully. Because the Enigma machine was so complex, it required not only a lot of manpower to solve, but also a lot of machinery. Though previously in history there was some hesitation to fund cryptographic efforts, the creation of Bletchley Park is proof that Allied officials saw the need for cryptanalysis as part of their war effort. It's hard to tell how much priority cryptography would have gotten had the situation not been as dire.

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The Ethics of Military Cryptography

We ran out of time at the end of class today to wrap up our discussion of the ethics of military cryptography. Sorry about that! I think our in-class activity worked well, but it needed a bit of discussion at the end. In lieu of that discussion, I'll share a few more perspectives on the Zimmerman telegram debate here on the blog.

Claim: Admiral Hall's decision to withhold information from the Americans about the Zimmerman telegram was ethical.

  • In the short run, telling the Americans would have saved lives, but maintaining the ability to decipher German messages would save more lives in the long run.
  • Hall's first responsibility was to his own country, and that country--and its whole way of life--was at risk from German invasion.  That was a bigger risk than the Americans faced, and a more immediate risk.
  • Who were the real bad guys here? It was the Germans who were attacking ships. It was the Germans who were lying to the Americans.
  • The Americans, as it turned out, were going to drag their feet anyway.  Telling them wouldn't have brought them into the war any earlier, and it might have compromised British cryptography efforts.

Claim: Admiral Hall's decision to withhold information from the Americans about the Zimmerman telegram was NOT ethical.

  • By not telling the Americans, people definitely died. Had the British told the Americans and the Germans realized their codes were broken, more lives might have been lost in the long run—but, in the short run, people definitely died.
  • What England did was as unethical as what Germany did—manipulating the Americans for their own ends.
  • Britain wanted America as an ally, which is a trust-based relationship. Hall was keeping secrets from the American government and undermining the trust between the nations.
  • Hall could have justified his decision by saying that he was doing what was, in his mind, best for America. However, that wasn't his place--it was the responsibility of the American government to make such decisions.
  • Didn’t Hall plan to let the submarine warfare happen so that America would be prompted into war? Dragging more people into a conflict is only going to result in more deaths.

Keep in mind that, in an effort to tell engaging and accessible stories, the author sometimes omits some of the complexities of the issues he discusses. As you read, consider ways that you can approach these issues from multiple perspectives.

The Road Less Traveled By

Admiral Hall's decision not to inform the U.S. about the impending U-boat attacks was complex, to say the least. The reasons why he would share his new intelligence with President Wilson are clear--the U.S. and Britain were allies to some degree, and it might possibly bring the U.S. into the war. However, I find his reasoning against sharing this new intel to be quite persuasive. By sharing the intel, he could lose a valuable asset which could save lives, and he might not even be believed. This is where the issue of ethics comes in.

Sharing the intel on the Germans appears to be the most ethical choice. It does right by an ally, and it saves lives. Then again, the lives possibly lost by this revelation of a way of gathering information could outweigh those saved. Once they found out the British had broken the cipher, the Germans would certainly change their encryption methods, and the flow of information would be cut off. This event could possibly lead to more losses in battle, more lives sacrificed. These two possibilities create the well-known gray area of war, in which many ask, "which path will save the most lives?" There was no true way to know which way to go, no way of figuring out just exactly how many lives would be lost either way. Admiral Hall was stuck between a rock and a hard place, his own personal catch-22.

Despite his dilemma, Admiral Hall, in my opinion, still managed to make the most ethical choice. Not only did he save the lives of his people, but he also saved the lives of the endangered Americans. By choosing to keep his intel secret, but orchestrating its revelation by way of a different channel, he managed to choose the path that wasn't apparent to many others. He kept his decryption success secret, and caused the American government to learn the true content of the telegram through a completely non-incriminating source: a mistake in the enemy's actions. Had he not done this, I might say his actions were unethical, that he should have saved the lives most definitely in danger. However, by managing to protect both potential victims from harm, I believe that Admiral Hall took the most ethical path available.

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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.

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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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Victory At All Costs

The Zimmerman telegram could be described as the key leading to an allied victory and the end of the war. However, after being deciphered, Admiral William Hall decided to keep America in the dark, withholding the contents of the telegram from President Wilson. Despite the immediate danger this posed to the United States, I believe Admiral Hall made the correct decision. Disclosing the contents of the telegram would have alerted the Germans to the vulnerabilities in their encryption, leading them to create more secure ciphers and eventually cutting off British access to German information.

Essentially, this boils down to whether or not "the end justifies the means". Although this paved the way to an allied victory, keeping the telegram a secret endangered countless american lives. One could argue Admiral Hall's decision was extremely unethical, as it unnecessary risked peoples' lives. Needless deaths must be avoided, even if it leads to a faster victory. The means are simply too cruel to justify the end. However, keeping the telegram a secret potentially changed the course of the war. Although American involvement was believed to ensure an allied victory, it was not guaranteed. The British access to German intelligence proved to be invaluable to their war effort, and saving more lives was not as important as keeping these intelligence lines open. With this intelligence, the British forces could always stay one step ahead of the German offensive. This aided greatly in preventing the Germans from dominating the war, and essentially allowed the allied forces to emerge victory. Thus, safekeeping this crucial line of intel proved much more important than saving more american lives. In addition, Admiral Hall's plans to intercept the German's telegram in Mexico would lead to President Wilson learning of the contents of the Zimmerman telegram. Although he would learn of its contents late, the effect of the telegram still stirred America to action. Thus, immediately sending the Zimmerman telegram to America was not even completely necessary. Overall, victory was the main objective, and thus the end did justify the means.

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Ethical, Unethical, or Both?

I am of the opinion that there are two ways that the question can be looked at. Personal ethics, I think, are different than the ethics of a nation. This is something that must be taken into account when questioning the ethics of decisions surrounding national security; it most certainly must be taken into account when considering the Zimmerman telegram.

From a personal standpoint, this decision is unquestionably unethical. Letting America know the contents of the Zimmerman telegram would have saved American lives, and potentially shortened the length of the war. Although it could be argued that more lives might have been lost if Germany knew that the code had been broken, I vastly disagree. Creating a new and equally strong code for their messages would have taken Germany a long period of time, because creating codes that function and are very strong is not an entirely simple process. Even if Germany became aware that their code had been broken, with the advantage given to both America and Britain, the war may have been won before the new code was invented. It is completely unethical for someone to break a code with the intention of shortening the war, and then not use the broken code to save as many lives as possible.

At the other end of this issue is the standpoint of national ethicality.  It is my opinion that a nations ethics are typically focused first and foremost selfishly, on the survival of that specific nation. It is quite possible that Admiral Hall believed that telling the Americans about the contents of the Zimmerman telegram would jeopardize the very survival of his nation, in which case he simply obeyed his national ethics, which told him that survival came first. In following this duty to his country he also follows another part of national ethicality, that the homeland must come first.

With these two sides to keep in mind, it is impossible for me to conclude that one is more correct than the other. Personally, it is unethical. Nationally, it seems it may have been quite ethical. In the end, this is a murky issue. However, in the tumultuous and interconnected times we live in today, this will be an issue I think we will revisit very soon.

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The Moral Question: Does Intention Matter?

Trade-offs between decisions that secure immediate safety versus the "overall good" - whether that means a quicker end to war, more net lives saved, keeping the upper hand - are often made during wars. They're made in our everyday lives as well, though, of course, the consequences of choosing between those two options are on a much less significant scale. I thought reading about the deliberate withholding of the Zimmerman Note from Wilson was very interesting, as it was the first time I was exposed to this information. It didn't particularly incite a strong reaction from me, however, in the sense that I felt very pro- or against the decision Admiral Hall made.

At the same time, someone might argue that it was based on similar principles as those during the bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, an event that I do have a strong opinion on. In order to end the war quickly, thus the "greater good" aspect of it, America decided to end 129,000–246,000+ innocent lives in Japan. While this death toll was not pre-estimated nor maliciously and intentionally predicted by any means, the result is still reality.

This differs from the Zimmerman event in that rather than deliberately taking lives, Hall put at risk the potential of danger from unrestricted U-boat warfare. I think the argument that his decision was reasonable can easily be made by stating that the reality of the situation was that the United States kept an upper hand and many lives were saved. It seems that the consequence was favorable. Taking that into mind, both these decisions - regarding the bombing and the Zimmerman note information - are probably considered ethical or reasonable almost overwhelmingly by looking at the result, rather than by looking at the initial intentions. If we looked at intentions, then both cases would un-controversially be deemed fair, which is clearly not true.

So by mulling over this event where we are in 2015, I too would most likely say (perhaps hypocritically, since I don't support the bombing decisions) that Hall made a logical decision to withhold the information he was keeping. Even knowing to consider his intentions, it is simply impossible not to look at the result when we're peering into the past from almost a hundred years into the future.

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Ethically Relying on the Unknown

I believe that, just like beauty, ethics are in the eye of the beholder. Whether or not one finds a decision ethical arguably depends more on one’s own upbringing and personal experiences than the action itself. The wide variety of cultural responses to issues such as abortion, the death penalty, and civil liberties exemplifies the inconsistency between our perceptions of morality. Ethics often lack one right or wrong answer and instead simply show how actions can align, or not align, with one’s beliefs.

When Admiral William Hall decided not to tell President Woodrow Wilson about the immense progress of Britain cryptanalysts, he was making a decision for the future of his own country. Although the telegraph showed signs of American danger, Hall was instead thinking of the potential lives he would save by withholding the information. By letting the Germans know that their code had been broken, the British would be unable to prevent future, possibly greater attacks on both their allies and their own country.

Although both risky and difficult, Hall did what he believed was best in the long run. While he was uncertain that more attacks would be revealed through cryptanalyzing German telegraphs, he truly thought that saving the lives of those in future warfare was the right decision. Ethically, I agree with Hall. Although he withheld information that would have helped his allies, he was focused on doing what he believed would help the most people over time. Hall himself was not putting the Americans in danger; he simply did not act upon the information given. If he had shared Britain’s knowledge, he would have given away an advantage that could ultimately win them the war. While Hall’s decision was a difficult one, his intentions were ethical as he believed the withheld information would best help both countries in the end.

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