The History and Mathematics of Codes and Code Breaking

Tag: surveillance

Privacy = Trust

Some teens see privacy as a right, but many more see privacy as a matter of trust. Thus, when parents choose to snoop or lurk or read their online posts, these teens see it as a signal of distrust.
-danah boyd
(It's Complicated, page 73)

I can remember in 8th grade when my friends' parents starting joining Facebook, not because they wanted to snoop on us, but because they saw Facebook as an opportunity to reconnect with old high school and college friends. However, some people did see this invasion into the "teen world" as their parents mistrust of them. Until recently, my parents have not had any desire to join social media (now my dad has a Twitter that he uses as a newsfeed for short, quick headlines). But more so than social media, my parents' surveillance of me in other ways has given me the same sense of distrust that the teens interviewed in It's Complicated expressed.

Until I turned 18, my dad received a text message every time I used my debit card, including where and how much. They also have the ability to (and they do) use the location services on my phone to see where I am. In short, if I wanted to go somewhere and do something without my parents' knowledge, it wouldn't be easy. Sometimes, it would seem that they don't trust me to tell them where I actually am and what I'm actually doing, but I'm sure their intentions are to ensure my safety in case anything were to happen.

In high school, I gave up some privacy to appease my parents and follow their rules. But now that I'm at college, our understanding is that unless I go off campus anywhere further than walking distance, I must let them know where I'm going. In other words, they trust me and give me the privacy to go and do what I please around and just off campus, and I expect that they won't betray that privacy by checking my exact location all the time. I think that in all aspects of life, the balance of privacy and trust versus safety and protection is an integral piece of the relationship between a teen and his/her parents. Even if we have nothing to hide, we associate having some privacy with the extent to which our parents trust us.

Snow(den)ball Effect: NSA More Helpful or Harmful?

Here’s an interesting approach to solving privacy issues: break up the agency charged with the responsibility of maintaining surveillance and security for the entire country. While the premise of the argument may seem counterproductive, Bruce Schneier’s essay “How to Save the Net: Break up the NSA” has some interesting and valid points as to why the NSA may be a hindrance to public security in certain aspects.

I plan to respond to this essay in my paper because it raises some of the big questions underlying the controversies in cryptography. In a way, the battle between developing technologies and still maintaining privacy and secrets has become a bit of an arms race. With newer technologies that open up paths of global communications come newer struggles of maintaining bigger secrets from an ever-growing audience. This also brings about more controversy and ethical dilemmas regarding regulation and security of these communication platforms. I hope to explore these controversies so that I can have a better idea of their everyday implications.

"War is Peace, Freedom is slavery, ignorance is strength"

Think about the term "preemptive war." Isn't it a little funny? A war to prevent a war. Is it worth it? What happens if it fails? Could a war larger than the theoretical one be waged then? It is definitely not impossible...

What about the idea that a world without surveillance seems to beg tragedy and pain? Does it have to be that way? Yes, behavioral surveillance has the possibility of stopping incidents from happening, but at what cost? Michael Morris's "Crystal ball" isn't as clear as he is making it out to be. Even with the most up-to-date data mining systems, you cannot truly get inside someones head. What happens when an official approaches someone with the intent of preventing a disaster? Could the official rub that person the wrong way and only succeed in pushing someone over the edge? What about the multitude of false-positives that are likely to pop-up? How can any task-force sort through all of them each with a level of scrutiny to determine if a person is sane? And what about the people who leave no virtual mark of the suffering they are going through?

Now think about the mass ignorance of the surveillance already being perpetrated against every one of us? I, for one, had no idea all that the NSA had been reported of doing until taking this class. What about everyone else? Is this ignorance bliss?

What kind of Orwellian society are we living in today? Have our nightmares become our reality?

I am choosing to write about "Mining Student Data Could Save Lives" by Michael Morris because I think Morris brings up many interesting points (some I touched upon above) without truly considering all that comes with it.



*The title references a famous line from 1984 by George Orwell*

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.

Necessity of Government Surveillance

As the world is currently in an information age and more information is being sent via the world wide web, it is necessary for the U.S. government to be given wide latitude to use electronic surveillance, even if that means citizen's privacy isn't always respected. The potential benefits of the government using electronic surveillance and the possible consequences of the government not utilizing electronic surveillance outweigh the potential loss of privacy of its citizens.

With increases in strength of encryption mechanisms, it is pivotal that the government and law enforcement agencies have wide latitude to use electronic surveillance so that they can stay one step ahead of the "bad guys". In Singh chapter 7, it is noted that "organized crime members are some of the most advanced users of computer systems and strong encryption." Also, there was a group labeled the "four horsemen of the infocalypse", being drug dealers, organized crime, terrorists and pedophiles. According to Singh, these are the four groups which benefit the most from strong encryption. All of these groups are constantly becoming more of a problem in our world today, and without the utilization of electronic surveillance, it can be nearly impossible to gather enough information to deal with these criminals in the best manner. If the government has wide latitude to use electronic surveillance, it would have the ability to catch some of these criminals and even prevent crimes and acts of terror from happening. However, without the use of electronic surveillance there would be many individuals and groups who would get away with criminal acts when they wouldn't otherwise. As seen in Singh chapter 7, the FBI still claims that "court ordered wiretapping is the single most effective investigative technique used by law enforcement to combat illegal drugs, terrorism, violent crime, espionage and organized crime."

It does need to be noted that when the U.S. government has wide latitude to use electronic surveillance, there is a potential invasion of the privacy of individuals. While I believe that the safety of U.S. citizens is more important than their privacy, there are those who disagree with this viewpoint. Even if we give the U.S. government wide latitude to use electronic surveillance, they should still do what they can to protect the privacy of individuals as much as they can at the same time. There are many ways to go about this, from an escrow system, to tighter regulations on the usage of information gained via surveillance. While the privacy of individuals is important, it is their obligation to allow their privacy to potentially be breached if it is for a more secure nation and society.


Photo Credit: "Camera-IMG 1961" by Rama via Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons

Surveillance protects our children



All American citizens are entitled to their privacy. It must be remembered, however, that any electronic privacy granted to citizens is also granted to who Singh calls the "Four Horsemen of the Infocalypse - drug dealers, organized crime, terrorists, and pedophiles". Because of this, all citizens should be more than willing to give up a little privacy to protect their families, neighbors, friends, and all citizens.

CC image courtesy of Lunar New Year on Flickr

CC image courtesy of Lunar New Year on Flickr

Imagine you have a child. Imagine they were being targeted by an online pedophile. This pedophile is making disgusting comments to your child and trying to persuade them to meet.If you are like most people, you would probably contact the police or do something similar in an attempt to catch this person that is targeting your child. Now imagine that the police tell you that there is nothing they can do about it at the moment because they are required to protect the electronic privacy of citizens.

Many proponents of electronic privacy are worried about what the government is reading of theirs. This is just evidence of the geocentricism of Americans. As scandalous of a life you think you lead, the government really doesn't care unless you are plotting something that endangers the country. By insisting on your privacy to keep your gossip or your secret online relationship hidden, you're stopping the government from potentially preventing mass shootings or terrorist attacks or even child abductions. 

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.

Privacy in Moderation

The debate over privacy and government surveillance seems to present opposite ends of the spectrum. The government does not necessarily need to have “wide latitude” but it still needs some latitude to use surveillance for the benefit of our nation’s security. Completely preventing the government from being able to monitor suspicious activity would be detrimental to our society. Singh talks about the drug dealers, organized crime, terrorists, and pedophiles as the “Four Horsemen of the Infocalypse,” (Singh 305) and how they would most benefit from stronger encryption. Government involvement would allow the possibility of these criminals being stopped. The counterargument is that our privacy is more important, but that argument does not look at the full picture. For example, if there was a terrorist group plotting to attack a city and the government had no power to monitor online activity and thus unable to prevent the attack, we would have essentially sacrificed innocent people’s lives for the protection of our privacy. That is not a fair trade.

Photo credit: "Padlock" by wayne wayne via Flickr CC.

Perhaps it is our individualistic society that fosters this attitude, but privacy should not be prized over people’s lives. Besides, there is value to government use of electronic surveillance. With the number of people that have access to the internet, we have created a sort of virtual society, and as is evident with any society in the real world, crime is bound to exist. A little bit of monitoring could definitely benefit us. If the government is allowed to use electronic surveillance to a certain extent or within specific restrictions, then our privacy would still be protected and the government would still be able to provide national security.

Privacy First

The government should absolutely not have "wide latitude" to use cryptography to surveil citizens. Throughout history, the role of United States government has been to protect the rights of its citizens. It is bound to this duty, especially when it comes to protecting citizens from itself. A majority of citizens are not engaged in illegal activities, and they have a right to have their privacy ensured. It is nothing to say that our thoughts are kept private from each other, what good is there in that when the government can, and possibly does, read everything you say? That isn't privacy. That is something that looks like privacy, but that has a back door for people who have too much access to possibly abused power.

Photo Credit: hyku via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: hyku via Compfight cc

In Singh Chapter 7, Singh mentions that a major concern of the government's is their continued access to wiretapping, which is supposedly essential to their catching criminals and terrorists, etc. This does not mean that they should have the ability to perform a wiretap on basically anyone, whether or not they have reason to believe someone has committed a crime. There is no way to no whether the people who would be given "wide latitude" to surveil citizens would only do so in the name of national security. Also, as Singh mentions, "in America in 1994 there were roughly a thousand court-sanctioned wiretaps, compared with a quarter of a million federal cases" (Singh Ch. 7). Wiretaps that are not essential to the majority of cases cannot be the basis on which Americans cede their right to privacy. Never in history has the government had such invasive means of gathering information, and they should not be given such capabilities now.

Every Security Measure Has a Weakness

One of the things which stood out to me throughout the book Little Brother was how it was so easy for even everyday people to foil the security measures put in place by the Department of Homeland Security. One of my personal favorites was the "arphid cloners" which could replace all of the electronic information on things such as your credit cards and identification and replace that with those of someone else. A particular passage showcasing this was when Marcus' father came home after being pulled over and questioned twice. This occurred because his father had been all over town recently to many various places, or so the DHS thought from their surveillance data. His father really had done nothing wrong, but various people who had been "given" his identity were making it look like he had very odd travel patterns. This marked a turning point in the novel as Marcus' father finally realized that there were some potential downsides to all of this surveillance the DHS was performing.

This concept of messing with security goes far beyond this one specific type of exploit, and goes further than the book as well. Every method of surveillance must have some weakness, whether that be an ability to avoid it or to attack it with so much information it cannot sort through it all properly. That raises the question of how useful every surveillance implement of the government is in the real world. It is possible that any day a random group of people could come up with a method to completely mess with some form of NSA surveillance. However as seen in the book, it is us as citizens who are the ones that are punished when there are flaws in surveillance systems. Thus we must ask ourselves if we are truly comfortable continuing to give up some of our privacy to groups such as the NSA and if that our relinquishing some of our right to privacy is actually helping in any way at all.

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