The History and Mathematics of Codes and Code Breaking

Oh What a Tangled Web

A Tricky Web of Trust

The passage in Little Brother that really intrigued me was the passage about “a web of trust” found on pages 153 and 154. The previous passage talked about public keys versus private keys and the risks associated with these keys. It is very difficult to make the public key incredibly public and a middle man can easily confuse the two people trying to communicate by secretly intercepting, reading and changing messages. The only way to ensure that communication is secure is to meet in person and swap keys, thus creating a secure web of trust limited by the pure number of people you can meet up with in person. However, if people keep passing on all of their keys to people they trust the ring grows and encompasses a larger group where secure communication is possible.

I think this is incredibly interesting since it seems then that any terrorist or criminal group would use this to communicate. Most partners in crime meet in person and would be able to devise such a plan to evade any potential middle men trying to intercept their communications. The passage seems to say that if you trust someone enough and see him or her in person, you can absolutely ensure safe communication with him or her. This ties into our discussions on whether the cryptographers or decrypters are winning and if such strong cryptos should even be allowed. In this case, the passage seems to be claiming that cryptographers will always win if they employ this strategy. This leads to questioning whether these encrypted messages are truly protecting innocent people or if they are masking and hiding criminals and terrorists. The argument could beOh What a Tangled Web made that cryptography that is unbreakable unless trust is broken is considered too strong and can be used too easily for harm. While this cryptography method may be used to protect individual’s privacy, I assume it would also be used to enable dangerous communication and activity.


Image: Oh What a Tangled Web by Jenny Downing, Flickr (CC)


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  1. jackso92

    I agree with you about very strong crypto possibly being used for criminal activities. As with most tools, the tool itself is neutral and may be employed by either side. In this case, public key is crucial for all encrypted internet traffic (banks, email, social networking, etc.). I don’t know that public key crypto is unbreakable, but for the time, it is extremely strong. At some point in the future, as our knowledge and computing power continues to increase, it is very likely that public key crypto will be broken. I think we can rest assured that our secrets are safe for now, though.

  2. herbstts

    While I agree that the web of trust is a powerful tool that could potentially help keep secrets, illegal organizations operate in secret and thrive on that secrecy. The act of organizing a large meeting of people in order to create the web of trust would make it simple to link people to already known criminals and would lead to more in depth surveillance that would lead to the destruction of the organization without completely knowing what their messages are. The solution to this would be not give direct access to the leaders of the organization but instead trust the judgement of the middle men of the operation, which makes it much easier to infiltrate the organization with a spy, much as in what happened to Marcus. Marcus trusted the judgement of people that he trusts, which makes sense for most situations, but that trust has no place in an illegal operation and is why Marcus ended up with spies among his “illegal organization.” While webs of trust could be used to help keep secrets, they are impractical for illegal organizations and because of that they pose no risk to anyone really.

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