The History and Mathematics of Codes and Code Breaking

Tag: terrorism

Privacy or Terrorists?

One passage in Little Brother that I found particularly interesting was a line said by Drew Yallow, Marcus's father, while they were arguing about the effectiveness of the DHS budget increase. In response to Marcus claiming that the DHS investigations were a breach of privacy, Drew asks, "What's the big deal? Would you rather have privacy or terrorists?" (118) Ignoring the logical error (I'd much rather have privacy and not terrorists, thanks) and assuming that he meant to ask "no privacy or terrorists", this line caught my attention because it seems to perfectly encapsulate the central theme of the novel, and of the security debate in general. From the perspective of the government, the need for security vastly outweighs the need for privacy, which made it easy to justify the decision to take away all individual rights pertaining to privacy. However, from the perspective of the Xnetters, privacy is a right that should not be violated, even in the name of national security, so they found ways to circumvent the constant surveillance through internet encryption and secret meetings.

Personally, I stand somewhere on the spectrum between the views of the DHS and the Xnetters. I would be very opposed to the amount of surveillance the government in Little Brother imposed on its people, but I'm also not completely opposed to a certain extent of surveillance as long as it stays within reasonable bounds. I believe that governments and other administrations should be allowed to surveil certain networks, such as school-provided wifi, and public areas, but any privately owned property and private areas such as bathrooms should be off-limits unless there is probably cause. To answer Drew's questions, I'd much rather have no terrorists, but not if it costs all of my privacy.

Universal Surveillance - Worse Than Terrorism?

In Cory Doctorow’s novel, Little Brother, an argument breaks out between Marcus and his new social studies teacher on pages 206-211. The logistics of the argument surround Mrs. Andersen’s opening statement to the class, “Under what circumstances should the federal government be prepared to suspend the Bill of Rights?”

Marcus openly engages the teacher and his fellow classmate, Charles, by defending his view that the “Constitutional rights are absolute.” Essentially, he believes that the Constitution should not be interpreted loosely in a way that would benefit the government. The two opposing him, however, firmly believe that it is okay to bend civil liberties so long as it is on the grounds of good intentions.

What stood out to me the most during this argument was when Marcus proclaimed that, “universal surveillance was more dangerous than terrorism.”

This brought me back to our class discussion over the second blog post, which was in regards to student surveillance. The belief that both Mrs. Andersen and the article writer, Michael Morris, had in common was that giving up a civil right, such as privacy, was the only way to secure safety.

Of course, there is no right answer to this debate. Everyone wants to be safe, but at what cost are people willing to secure it at?

My belief is that once someone experiences the true nature of universal surveillance, they see the complexity of the matter. That is why I side with Marcus on this debate. Universal surveillance creates a form of terrorism in itself. Everyone is forced to look over their shoulder and wonder if their actions will be interpreted as terrorism. As seen in the novel, teenagers were able to disrupt a government agencies’ system of universal surveillance. They were able to disrupt travel patterns, “walking identities”, and even create their own network that was practically unbreakable by the government.

My point is, everyone has something to hide - and not all of it involves breaking the law. Our privacy is something that makes us who we are. It gives us the chance to break away from society and digest what has happened during our busy day. Criminals will always find a way to get around the law: it is who they are. That is why a more organic approach needs to be taken to this new era of cyber warfare. Unfortunately, I do not have an answer to what that is, but I do know that society would not be the same if we were not able to freely be who we are today.

The Paradox of the False Positive

One passage from Little Brother that particularly caught my attention was the part from chapter 8 in which Marcus discusses the paradox of the false positive.  It begins with Marcus explaining his plan to fight back against the Department of Homeland Security's ramped-up surveillance and "safety protocols" that he believes to be violating the personal privacy of the citizens of San Francisco.  He talks about a critical flaw in the DHS terrorist detection system, which is that the accuracy of the terrorism tests isn't nearly good enough to effectively identify actual terrorists without incorrectly accusing hundreds or even thousands of innocent people in the process.  Due to the extreme rarity of true terrorists, the tests meant to increase safety end up generating far too many false positives that result in people feeling even less safe.  As Marcus says, it's like trying to point out an individual atom with the tip of a pencil.

This passage made me reconsider just how efficient automatic detection algorithms really are.  It's logical to believe that a 99% accurate test is reliable, but when there is a very small amount of what you're looking for in a very large population, a 1% error can cause major problems.  Thinking back to the article that discussed universities' use of data-mining to identify possible school shooters or other at-risk individuals, it's clear that the paradox of the false positive could cause similar issues in real-world situations.  The number of would-be school shooters is so small compared to the total student population that it would be extremely difficult for any tests to accurately identify them.  Overall, Little Brother's discussion of the paradox of the false positive demonstrates the importance of having reliable identification tests with sufficient accuracy to take on the rarity of what they are meant to find.  Otherwise, you might just end up working against yourself.

What Would I Give Up?

In a post 9/11 America, which is all I've ever known, I am paranoid. When I enter public spaces like movie theaters or airports, there's always an irrational fear in the back of my head that something is going to go wrong. This fear was undoubtedly placed there by terrorists, so they are clearly succeeding in their goal of instilling fear into the public. Oddly enough, my main concern in these scenarios is the lack of apparent security. For example, as I'm sitting down to watch a movie, it dawns on me how easy it would have been to sneak a weapon into the theater, even after the attack at Aurora. The same can be said for school. In fact, I know of someone at my high school who brought a lethal weapon with him to school multiple times. Not once was he caught. I feel like I have a good reason to be paranoid.

So what would I give up to feel safer? If anything, I'd be perfectly ok with more security. The most obvious implementation would be metal detectors at entrances to places. This would be a small inconvenience, and it would ease my paranoia immensely. I'm tired of living in fear, and enhanced security measures would make me feel much safer. Despite popular belief, more security in this regard would not mean the terrorists are winning, because I (and likely many more people) would feel safer as a result.

What would you give up to feel safer?

What would you give up to feel safer?

If it were possible, people should give up the existence of the United States. The US has been at war for 214 years out of a possible 235 years since its inception. (Donias, 2011). During this time, the US has been the cause of many atrocities abroad. For example, in more recent years, the wars in Afghanistan and Syria, which have caused the death of many innocent civilians. Effectively, by dissolving the US, we will decrease global terrorism immensely and thus, humanity as a whole will feel safer.

A map of nations when asked the question "Which country is the largest threat to world peace?".

While the Newseum poses the question in the context of terror, privacy, and security, framing it in this way implies that the US and its residents are unsafe and at risk of dying at any moment from an act of terror. This is false. In reality, the chances of dying due to a terrorist attack are 1 in 45, 808. (Gould, D. M., 2017). The question that should be asked is actually, why do US residents feel so unsafe?

The answer is rooted in the original question. The government has used the media to brainwash its citizens through sensationalized news, leading them to believe that the US is always at risk from an impending attack. As a result of this, the government can influence its citizens to “give up” their rights in order to feel safer. The government can then slowly take away its citizen's basic rights to things such as privacy and gun control, which will eventually culminate with their citizens being left with no freedom at all. As a result of this, the government will have ultimate power over their citizens, which was their goal from the start.

So, what people give up to feel safer? Nothing.




Gould, D. M. (2017, January 31). How likely are foreign terrorists to kill Americans? The odds may surprise you. Retrieved September 27, 2017, from

Danios. (n.d.). America Has Been At War 93% of the Time – 222 Out of 239 Years – Since 1776. Retrieved September 27, 2017, from

A map of nations when asked the question "Which country is the largest threat to world peace?", in 2013 [X-post from /r/europe] [1920x1080] • r/MapPorn. (n.d.). Retrieved September 27, 2017, from

The False Feeling of Security

I greatly enjoyed the class debate passages (p. 92-93, 175-182) in Little Brother. In the first debate, Marcus brings up the effects of terrorism and the problems with reactions to it.

Marcus' argument about the effects of terrorism involves the types of reactions societies have to acts of terrorism. Post-attack, his school system decides to install cameras in every classroom and hallway. He argues that this reaction gives into the terrorists' goals, because it fosters fear in the students and does nothing to truly protect them. In general, I agree with Marcus. The cameras give a false sense of security, pretending to be preventative measures when in truth they can do nothing to defend the students in the event of an attack, or to prevent one from happening. All the cameras do is watch and wait, ready to catch evidence to incriminate terrorists, which will be of no comfort to the victims of the attack. Therefore, the cameras are not much more than constant reminders of the events of the past and of all the fear there is to be felt in this world.

This concept reminds me of the heightened security after terrorist attacks, like 9/11. Post-9/11, airport security was entirely remade, and incredibly tight procedures were created. However, while some of these procedures can prevent and protect, they have their issues. The new procedures in any post-attack scenario increase security on the target of the attack--in this case, planes. The problem is, airports and planes are just one potential target, and it's unlikely that, having used that method, a terrorist group will choose to use it again. This isn't to say that increased security and tightened protocols are poor uses of resources. They are, of course, necessary and good. However, they do not automatically mean that everyone is safe. In fact, it seems to me that even as new security measures are important, they also allow the terrorists to accomplish their goal. Without the precautions, we leave ourselves open to other attacks via the same battle-tested methods. However, with the precautions, we focus our attention on one group of targets, associate fear with said targets for some period of time, and use valuable (but necessary) resources to defend them, without any real knowledge of the next potential target. These are the problems of being on the defensive, but they are issues to which I believe cryptography can hold the answers.

Why Do We Want Privacy?

"It's not about doing something shameful. It's about doing something private. It's about your life belonging to you" (Doctorow 57).

The idea in Little Brother that made me think the most was the idea of personal privacy and why that is so important. On page 57, Marcus compares a betrayal of personal privacy to a situation where you had to use the bathroom in a glass box in the middle of New York City every time you had to go. Everyone uses the bathroom, but it is a private and personal part of our lives, not something we want to share with everyone. So while Marcus didn't have anything really illegal, and definitely not at all related to the terrorist attack, on his phone, he didn't want to give "severe haircut lady" his password because his phone had private information that was his personal space. Throughout the novel, Doctorow explores the balance of protecting privacy and stopping terrorism. Homeland Security's efforts to find terrorists causes divorces and fights, things brought to light when their privacy was compromised. Xnet begins in the first place so kids can play video games and email away from the snooping DHS. This widespread desire for a private corner of our lives is why cryptography is so prevalent in our lives. As Vanderbilt students, our emails, web browsing, and phone calls are likely (and hopefully) nothing illegal: emailing professors about homework, calling home to parents, and ordering a pizza. But that doesn't mean that we want everyone to be able to see that. Cryptography allows everyone a sense of privacy and a way to create that privacy. However in this novel, Doctorow asks an important question: how much of this personal privacy are we willing to give up in the face of terrorism? Whether you agree more with Marcus or his dad, I think everyone would agree that the government in Little Brother gave far too little respect to personal privacy.

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.

Abolishing the Government: Terrorism, or Activism?

Of all the themes hit upon in this novel, one of the ones that intrigued me the most was that of the rights of American citizens to alter or abolish our government. In a passage from Chapter 11, Marcus’s teacher, Ms. Galvez, leads a discussion on social movements in the past and present. While some of the movements she describes were peaceful or just full of pranksters, she also described the more violent or illegal actions taken by some protesters. Theft took place, and some protesters even blew up buildings. Throughout the discussions, Charles continues to insist that these people, regardless of motives or methods, are all terrorists. However, Marcus brings up an interesting point; he cites the Declaration of Independence, which states that “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…” (p.180). Essentially, the book is introducing an interesting argument; when are acts considered terrorism, and when are they considered a method to alter our government?

In my opinion, terrorists aim to cause fear. They destroy buildings and cause violence to try to strike fear into the hearts of people who live in a certain country, or worship a certain way, or hold a certain opinion. The acts they are taking might be an attempt to alter the government, but it is done in a way that is completely unacceptable and malicious. However, most protesters are out there because they believe there needs to be a change to the way our country works and they believe they need to speak up about it. They are out there because they believe that they have a duty to change a government that is not serving them. So if they are out there with this intent, why do authorities so often try to stop them? When the Declaration of Independence was issued, America acted on their words of abolishing a government by fighting a war. Today, though, social and political movements are being shut down for far, far less than engaging in warfare. Many movements are shut down simply because they are challenging the status quo in a way that is not deemed appropriate by local authorities. A prime example of this is the protests happening in Ferguson, MO. Even if protesters are engaging in civil disobedience, don’t they have a right to attempt to inspire change in their own government? In the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln stated that America was a “government by the people, for the people”. However, now it seems that some believe our government is so important that the people can no longer change it. Basically, we are calling some of our citizen’s terrorists when all that they are doing is trying to change a system that was supposed to work for them in the first place.

Illegal Knowledge

In Cory Doctorow's Little Brother, Doctorow discusses the different types of cryptography without going to deep into the math behind it, instead focusing on its modern history and its effect on modern society. In the beginning of chapter 17, Doctorow briefly talks about the recent state of cryptography being considered a munition  and those illegal to create, instead everyone that needed cryptography had to rely on what was given to them by the NSA, even though that cipher was purposely designed to be possible to crack. This meant that banks and corporations all had to use a cipher that was designed to fail, which meant that there secrets could be revealed by anyone as intelligent or with the same training as the NSA agents. The fact that the NSA created a ban on cryptography, which at first makes some sense, is simply  unbelievable because it means that like Marcus Yallow says, "[we] used to have illegal math." This made the passage capture my attention because it connects the over arching theme of what freedoms and rights do we have and ties it with something that we are discussing in class. The length at which the NSA went to block the publishing of a graduate student's paper just because it had a tutorial that had the potential to make a cipher thousands of times stronger then the NSA standard is aggravating because it seems that the NSA would be happier that there was a stronger cipher that they could use, but instead they tried to force everyone to use what they could control even if it made everyone's ciphers weaker because of that. The other aspect of this passage that appealed to me was the  fact that is was another example in Little Brother in which the governtment tried to control something because they believed that they knew what was best for everyone, even when it is plain to see that they were hopelessly wrong.

Image: Shotgun Cartridges by John Gilchrist



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