Cryptography

The History and Mathematics of Codes and Code Breaking

Tag: ethics

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.

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.

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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