The History and Mathematics of Codes and Code Breaking

Tag: Government

Progression is Activism

Although at first I was a little miffed about the idea of reading an entire novel over break, but it was actually a pretty relaxing read and some points the author made were really thought provoking. Sometimes I felt he was trying to be too hip - I suppose this is a common occurrence in a lot of teen fiction - every time I read "total horn-dog" I was thinking, "what?" But that's neither here nor there. There were a number of quotes that I really thought about, like when Marcus was arguing for the absolute protection of the Bill of Rights, and the total non-professionalism some of the authority figures in the book seemed to exude, but Marcus also pointed out something very important. "I can't go underground for a year, ten years, my whole life, waiting for freedom to be handed to me. Freedom is something you have to take for yourself." Inspiring, isn't it?

Truly, nothing will be accomplished by passivity. The constant activism and solving problems is what propels movements forward - awareness will get something started, but there must be steps taken beyond that. Cryptography is similarly a constantly evolving subject, requiring analysis that is always considering different options and perspectives. It couldn't progress so efficiently if cryptanalysts were always waiting for other cryptanalysts to decipher notes themselves - and in many cases, that's exactly what they don't want to happen.

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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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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Protect our Privacy

In my opinion, the U.S. government should not be given a large ability to use electronic surveillance for national security. Surveillance might catch criminals, but it also catches a lot of innocent people in its path. Citizens have a right to their privacy, a right that the government should not intrude upon without good cause. Giving the government a wide latitude to use electronic surveillance seems to me like it would give them the opportunity to surveil people even if they weren’t suspicious, doubtlessly intruding on countless private messages that a completely innocent person is sending. Our government is by no means flawless; some of their actions in the past regarding surveillance have definitely fallen into a moral grey zone. For instance, the U.S. government used unjustified wiretaps on Martin Luther King Jr. for several years, gathering not only information that would help them in debates concerning civil rights but “bawdy stories” and “embarrassing details about King’s life” (Singh, p. 307). Clearly, they have used wiretapping unduly before; allowing them a breadth of access to electronic surveillance would undoubtedly result in them pressing their advantage too far in some cases.

Photo Credit: "Security" by Dave Bleasdale via Flickr CC

Photo Credit: "Security" by Dave Bleasdale via Flickr CC


In addition, citizen privacy during transactions is extremely important to the economy of the United States as well as the economy of the globe. Without secure encryption, messages sent using the internet and purchases on the web would be far less trustworthy. Furthermore, as purchases on the internet have increased, there is greater incentive for criminals to try to decode these purchases and reach credit card information (Singh, p.308). Imagine all of the purchases that occur over the internet in this day and age; it would be incredibly destructive if someone could break into the encryption scheme we use to protect them. Millions of people could lose their credit card information, and a break in to this effect would undoubtedly dissuade some people from purchasing much on the internet anymore. Allowing the U.S. government a larger reach in electronic security would surely mean that the encryption we were using for online transactions would have to go down; the U.S. government has been trying to decrease the private citizen’s level of encryption for years in order to allow easier access to the government to their information. They might try to switch us to the American Escrowed Encryption Standard, which would allow them a databank of all private keys, or even try to limit the length that a private key can be (Singh, p.310). Both would decrease the power of our encryption methods, hardly keeping us safe from criminals who might be searching for a way to steal credit card information. Overall, allowing great government power for electronic surveillance hardly seems like a good idea; not only would the security of our internet transactions decrease with a decrease in encryption, the government could invade our privacy much easier.

Losing our Voice


Photo Credit: looking4poetry via Compfight cc

The United State government should not be allowed to surveil its citizens and invade privacy in the interest of national security. The right to privacy was declared a basic human right. Taking that right away will weaken the voice of the citizens and allow the government more opportunity and more reason to increase surveillance in the future at the expense of other rights. This increased surveillance also increases the chance of an abuse of power.

If citizens allow their government to take away one right, then what is stopping them from taking away others on the basis that it will increase security? If a government knows it can get away with infringing upon the rights of its citizens, aware that the majority will not stand up and question them, it will be more inclined to abuse its power with the knowledge it is likely to suffer little repercussion if caught. There is evidence that the government has abused its power, especially when it comes to infringing upon the right to privacy. The government unjustly wiretapped telephone conversations of Martin Luther King Jr. and fed the information to Senator James Eastland, which he used in debates regarding a civil rights bill. Presidents such as Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon have been accused and proven guilty of unjust wiretapping (Singh, Ch. 7).

The U.S. government has shown its willingness to break the law and infringe upon the privacy of its citizens, allowing them to surveil the citizens for increased security. Allowing them to continue conveys that it is ok for them to do so. In the end, we will lose much more than just privacy. We lose our voice, our freedom and our rights.

The Importance of Privacy

jeff_golden. Flickr. Creative Commons.

jeff_golden. Flickr. Creative Commons.

The government does not have the right to infringe upon the privacy and security of United State’s citizen. The proposed idea of the government being given ”wide latitude” of surveillance breaches these privacy barriers that are protected by the Constitution. The ability to keep information secure has decreased with the increased use of technology. A face-to-face conversation is the most secure method or exchanging information but is not practical with todays growing world. “The advent of digital technology, which makes monitoring so much easier” fuels the desire to protect your information (Singh 306). This decreased ability to protect your information has led to the creation of enciphering methods on the Internet. The creation of this type of security has aided in the protection of citizen’s rights. These are ways that citizens protect their right to privacy and the government should not be allowed access to their citizen’s private information. The government should be prevented from infringing upon the security of its citizens without reasonable cause and search warrants. Giving the government ”wide latitude” would allow citizen’s rights to be violated. It is the government’s job to respect the constitution and the wishes of their constituents. The citizen’s rights are supposed to be of the utmost importance to the government and the basis of the constitution.

Coffee shop owner attempts to protect customers' privacies

One passage that stood out to me while reading Little Brother was on pages 90 and 91. Here, Marcus speaks with the owner of a Turkish coffee shop. As Marcus tries to pay for his coffee with a debt card, the owner explains to him that he no longer takes debt cards. He explains that this is now just another way for the government to keep track of where each citizen is. Because of this, he will now only accept cash. The owner also tells Marcus that this very thing- the government keeping such close tabs on its citizens- is why he left Turkey and came to America.
I think why this passage stood out to me so much is because of the owner's motivation to come to America. We're supposed to be the land of the free and the home of the brave, yet we have to question if as American citizens we truly are free, and in this case, free from our own government. Obviously Doctorow takes these questions to a new level in his novel Little Brother with the heightened invasions of citizens' privacy, but he bases this future off of what is currently present in society.
Besides questioning Americans' freedom, this passage stood out to me because it was inspiring to see the owner decide to put the sanctity of his patrons' securities in his own hands. He made the decision to not accept debt cards anymore because he is trying to protect his customers, even if that means losing some customers due to the inconvenience. I thought this was extremely admirable and inspiring, considering he is trying to protect the very thing that drew him to America from Turkey.

Weakening the Lucifer: An Abuse of Power

Not all ciphers are created equal. Some are mathematically simple and easy to crack while others are seemingly secure but impractical to use. Then there are the ciphers that are mathematically secure but watered down to be breakable. The Lucifer cipher, created by Horst Feistel in the 1970s, was a secure cipher algorithm that was intentionally weakened so that it could be broken by the government.

The National Security Agency limited the Lucifer cipher to 100 quadrillion keys. This number is extremely large, but the NSA wielded enough computing power to try all the possible keys used to encrypt a message and decrypt the message by finding the correct key. They argued that the encryption was still secure because only the NSA had the computing power to find the correct key, which meant that the cipher could be used for commercial purposes without being broken by rival companies (Singh 250).

The action taken by the NSA to inhibit the Lucifer cipher was unethical and unjustified. Lucifer had the potential to be genuinely unbreakable using available technology if the number of possible keys was unlimited. If the technology is available to generate an unbreakable cipher, then people should have the right to use it without having to use a modified governmental version of it. The argument that the cipher was secure to all computers except those of the NSA is inherently flawed. Even though the NSA may have the most powerful computers at a given time, they may not necessarily keep that status. If they do not even have the capability to develop the Lucifer cipher on their own or to develop the tools necessary to break it, they most likely will be behind in computer development as well. Moore’s law suggests that computing power increases exponentially (, and at this dramatic rate of increase in technological progress, the NSA cannot guarantee that they will be the only ones able to break the cipher. They are jeopardizing commercial communications by granting themselves access to the cipher.

Parallels can be drawn between the NSA’s actions and an economic monopoly.  The NSA wants complete control over this cipher, so it weakens the cipher to a level that only the NSA’s computers can break. In a monopoly, one business eliminates their competition in a region so they raise prices without fear of losing customers ( The government is abusing their power by purposely lowering the security of a cipher that millions of people depend on. If they want to decrypt messages, they should exploit potential weaknesses using cryptanalysis. Weakening the cipher is like changing the rules in the middle of a pokergame to give one person an advantage: it’s cheating.

Simon Singh, The Code Book

Image: "All In!" by Eduardo Carrasco, Flickr (CC)

Illegal Cryptography is Illegal Mathematics

The excerpt in Doctorow's Little Brother that caught my attention the most and interested me was the very beginning of Chapter 17. Mathematics is an integral part of our society and the technological advances behind its development. Also, isn't Cryptography just another application of math? So when Doctorow explained that the "government classed crypto as a munition and made it illegal for anyone to export or use it on national security grounds," it jumped out to me how ridiculous this statement was. The thought of having "illegal math" is like throwing people in jail because they were thinking creatively. The NSA has a standard maximum strength cipher and no one was allowed to create a cipher stronger than that standard. When a graduate student may have created a possible cipher in a paper, the NSA decided to ban the publishing of this paper. Reading about this in Little Brother made me realize the extent of our freedom of expression nowadays. If these crypto wars in the 19th century continued and the government prevailed, then modern advancements in technology would have never have even happened. I believe that we depend more on free cryptography than we may realize because it spawns innovative thinking and creations.

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