The History and Mathematics of Codes and Code Breaking

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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  1. Derek

    One of the dozen or so quotes I wrote down when I first read this book: “Get that? We used to have illegal math in this country.”

  2. Kristin Davis

    Though I understand that the NSA was only trying to protect American citizens from dangers in and outside the country, their attempt to ban a certain type of math was not only futile, but completely contrary to their first mission. By banning strong cryptography, the NSA thought they could harness the power of cryptography for only themselves instead of the bad guys. While this seems like a good idea, the NSA only limited the rights and freedoms of law-abiding companies and citizens. It would be naive to think that mobsters and criminals hiding their nefarious deals would follow the cryptography law when they have already broken every other law. The NSA’s rules only punished people already following the laws by leaving them vulnerable to criminals the new laws were made to protect against. This is why it is crucial to protect rights and freedoms because government cannot be trusted to make the right decision when they are blinded by so much power. While the government and agencies like the NSA might have the citizens’ protection as their motivation, their abuses that lead to further endangerment of innocent people show that it is better to be a less protected and free than in the “safe” hands of the government.

  3. kalhors

    I completely agree with this post that the NSA’s attempt to make cryptography illegal is completely ridiculous. Math is a utility of technological advancement and societal growth and it is not meant to be restricted and manipulated just for personal use. As a matter of fact, the NSA should take the cipher written in the paper as a challenge in order to further strengthen their own ciphers. The government having as much power to even outlaw a form of math is already too much in my opinion. Free thinking entices new discoveries and in my opinion, the government should have no say in the use of education and intelligence.

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