The History and Mathematics of Codes and Code Breaking

Month: October 2012

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


The Priority of Privacy

In Little Brother, a novel written by Cory Doctorow, protagonist Marcus Yallow, a.k.a. “M1k3y,” battles against the prospect of universal surveillance by the very agency meant to protect him and his country. In his efforts to galvanize an army of young protesters against the radical Department of Homeland Security (DHS), I could not help but sympathize with his interpretation of our constitutional rights as they apply to privacy.

Heroes: M by Frederic Poirot

In a heated class discussion, Marcus argues that the liberties provided by the Bill of Rights and intended by revolutionary forefathers are absolute and unwavering in their applicability. Those siding with the DHS, however, justified the sacrifice of personal liberties in the name of national security. The passage and novel as a whole raises an interesting and relevant question in regards to privacy: In our modern times, is the tracking of our digital whereabouts justified by the assurance (or hopeful promise) of sound national security?

In my opinion, the answer is no. While digital tracking does increase the efficiency of certain services, such as optimizing a search engine or bombarding key demographics with relevant internet ads, it is counter-intuitive in the context of national security. Surely, universal surveillance seems like a logical solution – track everyone, find the culprit. As demonstrated by the “the paradox of the false positive,” however, universal surveillance proves inefficient by amounting to a surplus of unreliable conclusions and data. Of course, there do exist instances in which a narrow, more focused application of surveillance proves effective, but these instances are considerably covert and target highly suspicious individuals (or at least, that’s how the government today makes it seem). But even when ignoring practicality, the implications of surveillance oppose what we believe to be fundamental, inherent liberties stated in the Constitution, but true regardless of context. In saying so, I believe that our digital shadows should be just that, our digital shadows, for no one else to see.

Scale of Justcie

Where Do We Draw the Line

Throughout Little Brother by Cory Doctorow, I found myself torn as to who I should support. Several times I found myself questioning what I believed and what I would do. In chapter 13, however, I had no trouble siding with Marcus during his discussion in class about suspension of constitutional rights.

Scale of Justcie

When Mrs. Anderson brought up the hypothetical situation where a police officer went beyond what his search warrant allowed for, and found indisputable evidence to prove the person is guilty. This is a classic question of whether the law or justice is more important. She asks, “Should the bad guy go free?” Should he? No, but he must.

In the same way that the Miranda Rights prevent police from using evidence gained without the other party knowing his or her rights, a police officer cannot use evidence gained in an illegal search. No one would ever tell you that he deserves to go free, but because of how our system works, that is the way it must be. The day we start bending the rules is the day we can no longer trust the rules to be on our side.

The fact is that without rules we are a bunch of uncontrollable creatures who act selfishly whenever possible. Either we have rules or we do not, there is no in between. If rules are not absolute, then there is no way to enforce them with a straight face. Obviously there are times when certain rules must be suspended (state of emergency), but there are rules in place that explain how that works. The problem arises when a government suspends rules/rights that they have no right to suspend.

The Constitution is a living document, and I agree that changes have to be made to it in order for it to continue to function as intended. However, the the way the teacher describes it is not that. She seems to believe that you take the Constitution as guidelines rather than rules, which is just downright false. If you do not like what the Constitution says, you have to change it. You cannot just ignore it.

Picture Credits: Scale of Justice 2 New: Original by DTR, Derivative by Agradman

Privacy for the Sake of Privacy

The passage in the book that I found most interesting comes from Chapter 4. Marcus discusses what it feels like to be locked up with all his privacy revoked. I often wondered why it matters so much that we keep our lives private. If we are doing nothing wrong, why try to keep a secret. For example, I have a friend who refuses to use Google because of their tendency to keep information regarding users.

In this passage, Doctorow relates privacy to something we all can understand: using the bathroom. He proclaims that there is nothing inherently wrong with using the bathroom, but we would never volunteer to do so while others were watching. In regards to personal data and using the bathroom, he feels: “It’s not about doing something shameful. It’s about doing something  private. It’s about your life belonging to you.”

 I realized that having nothing to hide is not the same thing as putting your life on blast. I could also better understand Marcus’s plight in his fight for privacy after reading the comparison. As an adamant technology adopter, I know how intruding services can be, but there is also a trade-off. In the case of Google, allowing its servers to hold your data means better search results. I think the main question we must ask ourselves is: Is the trade-off worth the breach in privacy?

Image: Glass House by James Vaughan

Going Public

No Chaos by Daniela Hartmann

In Little Brother, the main character Marcus Yarrow repeatedly uses cryptography to spread information without the DHS’s knowledge while disguising it in the chaos of data. Though the characters are only teenagers, they certainly have moved past childish cryptography methods such as caesar ciphers or even vigenére ciphers.

To spread secret messages, the characters need an unbreakable cipher and a way to hide their communication. Instead of creating their own enciphering method, they use public keys that everyone can access. Though this seems counterintuitive, the method of using public keys is actually much safer than the best cipher someone could create on their own. Public keys have been tested and tried, while a secret key can either be discovered by a spy or cracked if weak enciphering methods are used. With public keys, you are more certain your cipher hasn’t been compromised because everyone else would be compromised too. If you try to hide your key, you have no idea as to the strength of the key because no one has ever tried to crack it yet. The “so public it’s private” double layering of information seems as though it would be easy to spot, but as Little Brother shows, the amount of data humans now have to process means it is becoming easier and easier to simply blend in with the noise.

Throughout the novel, instead of looking suspicious, the characters try to either make their patterns look as normal as possible or create so many false positives  that odd behavior becomes ordinary. This disguising of information combined with a public, computer encrypted cipher system allowed the characters to easily pass along information  without getting the attention of the DHS.

Though this seemingly contradictory approach to secrecy may seem unique to this novel, it has become the standard practice in the world today. Before and during WWII, secrecy of keys was of primary importance, but they were still either discovered or cracked. Today, the rise of computers has made it almost impossible to send messages the old way because computers can do thousands more calculations to decipher almost anything. By using tested public and private key combinations and by disguising the true message within the flood of data, as in Little Brother, messages can be easily sent and received without being compromised or even detected.

Blog Assignment #4

For your fourth blog assignment, write a post between 200 and 400 words in which you (briefly) summarize and react to a passage in Little Brother that caught your attention. You might address why it interests you, connections you see between the passage and other ideas we’ve discussed this semester, or your opinion on arguments made in the passage.

Please (1) give your post a descriptive title, (2) assign it to the “Student Posts” category, (3) give it at least three useful tags, and (4) include a Creative Commons licensed image in your post that somehow (concretely or abstractly) represents an idea in your post. Your post is due by 8:00 a.m. on Tuesday, October 9th.

Image: “Ghost Writer,” by me, Flickr (CC)

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