The History and Mathematics of Codes and Code Breaking

Tag: little brother (Page 1 of 5)

The Need to Establish a Common Ground

When the 9/11 attacks occurred on American soil, the government had to respond in a certain manner to ensure the safety of its people. Based off of an argument brought up by Cory Doctorow in his novel Little Brother, I agree that the government first has to protect the safety of all citizens above anything else. Therefore, the government's action to look into previous phone calls and other similar information I believe is justified. While I also advocate for privacy rights, technology has such an affect on globalization that the government would not be able to ensure these terrorists were brought to justice if they did not search through these messages.

However, my concern is: when does this investigation stop? The government can be justified for looking to catch the terrorists and their accomplices, but how do we know that once they are found the government will stop peering on our personal data. The answer is that we don't. It is this sole reason that causes me to deter the allowance of the government to have access to this technological data. At times our rights have to be compromised to ensure our safety, but when will we be certain that we will ever be fully safe again. It is arguments like this that continually give the government justification to continue their investigations through people's private matters.

Therefore, I would grant access to the government for these investigations if I could be assured there would be a set termination to the investigations. For example, if the information could not be found after a few months, then it would be halted. I believe this serves to establish the perfect medium between ensuring privacy rights while also ensuring the safety of the citizens of the United States.

Little Brother Resources

Some Little Brother resources that might be useful...

And here's a photo of the debate map we constructed in class on Monday. Click on the photo for a better view.

The Land of the Free and Home of the Brave

This weekend marked the start of NFL football season, and for an avid fan like me it's one of the most exciting weekends of the year. However, I want to talk about what happened before the games rather than what happened during them, specifically the national anthem. At the close of each rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner, the words "The land of the free, and the home of the brave" are sung." Those words, that I've heard dozens, if not hundreds of times, took on a different meaning when I thought about my recent reading of Cory Doctorow's Little Brother.

In the society of Little Brother, the "land of the free" simply is not that; rather it is a land of oppression, violations of rights and tyranny. Following the detainment of Marcus and his friends, Marcus is accused of being involved with the terrorist attack simply because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time. As a result, many of his basic rights guaranteed by the Bill of Rights are taken away. Marcus even says on page 55 "you're talking about defending my freedom by tearing up the Bill of Rights." These rights are fought for every day by men and women who risk their lives to keep this the "land of the free." Once we lose our freedom, we lose everything that America stands for.

On Page 56, Marcus says "The truth is I had everything to hide, and nothing," which immediately had me think about our discussion in class the other day. One of the arguments in favor of Vanderbilt surveilling our data was that "if he we had nothing to hide then why should we care." We should care because this is the United States of America. Because this is indeed the "land of the free" and certain freedoms are guaranteed to us by the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. My counterargument to anyone who says we shouldn't care about our privacy being compromised if we have nothing to hide is to ask them whether or not they would be consent to the government searching their dorm, or their house every day; nearly everyone would object. I believe that our digital footprint should be treated the same way. After all, this is supposed to be the land of the free, and that freedom should extend to all aspects of our lives.

"Hooded Gas Mask" — Just Another Google Search

If my reaction to Chapter Four could be summarized in three words, they would be “hooded”, “gas,” and “mask.”

Separated, those are just three innocent words, but if you put them side by side, suspicion would loom over your head as if you were its shadow. “Suspicion… by who” you may be wondering. Well, in my case, it could be the suspicion of those who monitor the internet here at Vanderbilt University, and in a day and age of heightened concern over public safety, that is not the kind of attention you want directed at you.

You see, although those three words can be read back in Chapter Three, it did not peak my curiosity to google them until I had reached Chapter Four. There I was at 2:00 A.M. on a Friday morning looking up images of hooded gas mask — not necessarily something your average college student would need. To me, I was merely being curious, but somebody else may have thought otherwise; they may have thought I was planning to recreate the tragedy that happened at Virginia Tech several years ago.

Once I became self-aware of how weird it was for me to be googling “hooded gas mask,” I closed all my tabs, deleted my history, and reverted back to my daily browsing of Reddit.

Unfortunately, Marcus did not have this opportunity, for he was caught “at the wrong place at the wrong time.” Trapped on the scene of America’s worst terrorist attack while unrelatedly being a tech-wiz as well, Marcus was detained by Homeland Security for being a possible threat to the U.S. After an uncomfortable ride by truck and boat, he and his friends were taken to an isolated location. There, he was asked to unlock all of his gadgets and logins, one by one — each unlocked gadget or login granting him an additional privilege. First, he was asked to unlock his phone to which he wanted to say “no,” but he eventually complied. The next day,  he was asked to unlock his email to which he complied without resistance. Then the day after that, he signed some papers (hesitantly) and was released from custody, but his interrogator made it clear that Homeland Security would continue to watch him.

Throughout just a few days,  Marcus endured a terrible scrutiny of his entire life — all because he was “at the wrong place at the wrong time.” If Vanderbilt had just endured a similar tragedy that the U.S. did in this book, would I be subjected to a similar treatment just for looking up “hooded gas mask” out of curiosity? The thought is unnerving.

I have always been a guy to say that we should put security over privacy without question but not after finishing this chapter and certainly not after the finishing book.

Needle in a Haystack

In Little Brother, by Cory Doctorow, Marcus's father supports the actions of the police saying that Bayesian analysis is a reasonable and logical response. He believes that data mining is key to crime prevention: "'s perfectly reasonable to conduct their investigation by starting with data mining, and then following it up with legwork where a human being actually intervenes..." (Doctorow 109). Drew begins as an advocate for this tactic but when it is taken too far and used to hurt rather than help he quickly turns against it.

This passage is so interesting because it shows a crucial point to the Security vs. Privacy that is so prominent today. The idea behind this type of analysis is data mining is an instrument and not a weapon. The proper use is to help, in the case of Little Brother, police "sort through the haystack to find a needle" (Doctorow 110). However, the police quickly cross the line when they rely solely on data mining to assess every aspect of a person. They lost the human component that makes their work humane. This passage is relevant to so many other topics too. For instance, the discussion about if data mining should be allowed at colleges and universities contains many key points that are touched upon here. Bayesian analysis could be utilized as a tool to help prevent future school attacks. Data mining can be one of the most helpful resources as long as it is kept in check. Long story short, this is an issue that can be argued for ages and that can never truly been answered. It is obviously wrong to use data mining to invade the privacy of an individual, but it gets extremely complicated when it could mean the safety of the majority.

A Young Snowden

Whether or not he was willing to accept it, Marcus is the leader, the figurehead of a revolution against his own government. He created a secret network over which he could securely communicate with other defectors and used it to plot against the DHS, eventually getting them removed from San Francisco. As displayed during the scene at VampFest, Marcus garners at least 1,000 followers who trust him enough to partake in the event. These were people who would do anything for him. They idolize him. He embodies what they are fighting for.


"'Can I just say,' Nate said, 'can I just say that it is the biggest honor of my entire life to help you? Can I just say that?'

I was blushing now. There was nothing for it. These two were totally starstruck, even though I wasn't any kind of star, not in my own mind at least." (Doctrow 330)

To me, this passage shows how much Marcus means to the average Xnet user. They quite literally worship him, even after he insists time and time again that he is not the leader of any movement. The reason the idea of Marcus heading a revolution against the DHS interests me is because of how impressive it is. Marcus is just a humble 17-year-old high school student. After he was imprisoned by the government, he vows to take them down, to make things right again. All the while, he just views himself as an ordinary part of the machine he created.

I view Marcus as a leader in this novel. Time and time again, I found myself comparing him to the likes of Edward Snowden and others who fought government security agencies. He has no fear, accepting the inevitability of his own downfall.  The way he handles himself in the difficult situations he is put in, the passion for privacy which he displays, and his ability to remain anonymous despite the DHS's best efforts makes him great. I'd say that his followers are justified in viewing him as a hero, considering what he was able to accomplish against such a powerful organization.

The Fight for Freedom and Privacy

During a heated debate in chapter 11 of Little Brother, the main character, Marcus Yallow, felt the need to read something to put his point across. "'It's short. "Governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, that whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles, and organizing its power in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness."'" Of course this passage is from the Declaration of Independence, and I believe Marcus uses it in this debate to defend not only the hippies or Yippies in question, but the group of people proclaiming "TAKE IT BACK!," at the concert.

From Marcus' use of this passage multiple times more in the book, and other grandiose speeches about fighting for rights, one can take that he want a true freedom. His infatuation with freedom leaves him as the most politically charged characters in the book. He is the main reason that as we read this today, we can notice the almost prophetic political statement of today's government watch on web usage. The situation may not be extreme as in mentioned in the book, but it gives a look into what could be a worse case scenario: a complete misuse of governmental power that leads to a major part of government being cast out of an entire state.

The passage from the Declaration of Independence is from times of distress of early America. There needed to be a change in the way people were treated as citizens. We can only hope that now, as current day Americans, that we can protect ourselves and our privacy as we see fit, so that we will not need a drastic change.

Getting Our Priorities in Order

“The role of government is to secure for citizens the rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. In that order. It’s like a filter. If the government wants to do something that makes us a little unhappy, or takes away some of our liberty, it’s okay, providing they’re doing it to save our lives,” (Doctorow, 209). This is an excerpt from Little Brother, a novel by Cory Doctorow. At this point in the story, a DHS approved social studies teacher, Mrs. Andersen, has replaced Ms. Galvez, the regular teacher. Mrs. Andersen is explaining the Bill of Rights to the students from the DHS perspective.

Protecting life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness “in that order” is not only useless, but dangerous. If your first concern is always to protect your life above all else, then you shouldn’t get out of bed in the morning. Think of all the terrible accidents that could happen, just by getting out of bed. Not that staying in bed is much safer, what if a tree falls on your house? When you sacrifice liberty and the pursuit of happiness due to fear, you are no longer living at all. If the government has the right to take away your freedoms at will, as long as they can claim to be “protecting life,” then there is no government action that is unjustifiable.

This is an obvious example of the slippery slope between privacy and security. If the Bill of Rights is treated as a set of guidelines, then what is to prevent ideas like these? The framers of our Constitution did not intend for the Bill of Rights to be flexible; these rights are absolute. When they become less than that, we open ourselves up to the tyranny that those rights are meant to protect us from. It’s time that we recognize this, time that we truly get our priorities in order, before it’s too late. If the government has unrestricted access to all personal data, then we have failed to live up to the ideals that make this country what it is. Even in the name of remaining safe, of preventing terror, we will be causing it. Innocent until proven guilty could quickly become guilty until proven innocent. If we prioritize security over privacy, it may not be long before we are living in a world like that of Little Brother.

How can we make security more "secure"?

On page 99 of Little Brother by Cory Doctorow, Marcus delineates the flaws of cryptology and how ultimately cracking the Enigma led to the victory against the Nazis in WWII. One of the flaws was secrecy; after Alan Turing cracked the Enigma, any Nazi message could be deciphered because “Turning was smarter than the guy who thought up Enigma” (99). As a result, it sparked the thought that any security system is “vulnerable to someone smarter than you coming up with a way of breaking it” (99). Bruce Schneier also refers to flaws of a security system in his Afterword, explaining that it is useless for you to come up with a system entirely by yourself because there is no way for you to detect flaws in your creation. You are limited to your knowledge. Outsiders with different levels of thinking would help by suggesting different views in which people can think of in order to break the system.

I think that this concept is interesting; you are limited by what you know. And everyone around us knows something that we don’t. Recently I read a passage in Harvard Business Review on how companies and organizations should welcome people in different kinds of fields to evaluate an idea because they won’t think the same way that people in a particular company does; a mathematician thinks differently than a historian does, and the distance between their thinking has the potential to bolster ideas, limit flaws, and suggest new ideas that haven’t been thought of yet. Could this be the way to strengthen our current security systems? What kind of people do we need to evaluate them? How many people do we need (until we pass the point to where the security measure is too widely known and therefore ironically more vulnerable)?

I believe this is one of the fundamental qualities of Cryptology and all security measures: how do we know a system is safe to use? Truth is, we really don’t know, but we can always come closer by cross referencing and past experiences, allowing security to get better and better with each step of the way.


Absolution of the Constitution

On page 208 of Little Brother, Marcus gets into a heated argument with his replacement social studies teacher and Charles. The teacher and Charles are arguing that rights provided to the people in the Constitution/Bill of Rights can be suspended under certain circumstances. Marcus is arguing that the rights are absolute, and that the teacher's way of thinking leads to the idea that the government can perform any action they deem necessary to "keep citizens safe". While I completely understand this opinion, I don't know if I agree with Marcus entirely about this conflict. The Bill of Rights, while an incredibly important document of American history, at the end of the day are just reflections of the perspectives of men who lived in an entirely different era. I feel honored and protected by this document, yet I do not believe it is absolute. In my opinion, certain laws/rights are outdated, and to argue that a rule should stay as it was written because "it's my constitutional right" is simply not a valid argument. Times change, and with it, so should governing structures. The men who wrote the Constitution were never under the constant danger we experience today, danger of identity theft, bombings, terrorism, hackers, etc. Why do we continue to take their word as law? Granted, the extent to which the government invaded privacy in Little Brother was certainly extreme, and I don't condone that, but I do believe the government should be allowed to access certain information about people if it can help prevent terrorism or violence. In Judaism, there is this idea of pikuach nefesh, which is that saving even one life overrules any other religious obligation. If it can be proven that government surveillance saves even a handful of lives, then I believe that we as citizens should understand that.

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