The History and Mathematics of Codes and Code Breaking

Author: batsonhr

Surveillance = Dehumanization

One of the topics most widely discussed throughout Little Brother by Cory Doctorow is government surveillance. Was it justifiable for the DHS to track the citizens of San Francisco’s every move in the name of national security? An instance where this ethical dilemma came into question occurred on pages 136-138, when Marcus and his father learned that the DHS was closely monitoring ground chatter. Marcus, who was responsible for this spike in chatter, was opposed to the DHS’ involvement with the issue, while his father praised the DHS for their work attempting to catch the “methodical fools.” According to Marcus’ father, in today’s society you must sacrifice some things in order to feel safe, asking his son, “Would you rather have privacy or terrorists?” Marcus on the other hand sees the monitoring as an invasion of privacy, and does not believe that surveillance will amount to the arrest of terrorists.  


I found both Marcus and his father’s arguments extremely interesting and compelling. On one hand, the terrorists who killed thousands of people where still physically free, and potentially able to cause more harm. On the other hand, the constant monitoring has only slowed society, and has created fear throughout the city. Although both arguments are valid, from an ethical standpoint I would have to side with Marcus. The use of algorithms and data-mining to determine the likelihood of a person to be a terrorist is extremely dehumanising. In the US, we have already turned humans into mere digits by using social security numbers to keep track of virtually everything we do. Data-mining, for the purpose of finding criminals, reduces human behavior to simple numbers. We are not computers. This dehumanization allows the government to treat us like statistics. As shown by the book, we go far beyond this assumption. Our behavior is influenced by a range of variables (like emotions), that computers cannot comprehend. 



In the essay “Mining Student Data Could Save Lives” by Michael Morris, Morris argues that data mining on college campuses is essential for student safety. The essay begins by explaining how data mining can be useful in our daily lives., for instance, collects data in order to best predict products that we would likely purchase. Credit card companies track our location and spending habits to prevent credit card theft. Similar to the examples, colleges automatically have access to our online records through the email accounts and free internet they provide us. However, these colleges were unable to use these records to enforce disciplinary actions because of Ferpa (Family Educational Rights and Privacy Acts), which prevents schools from releasing students’ educational records without the students consent. 

Considering the possible positive effects, I believe that data mining is extremely practical. Today, nearly everyone uses the internet. Due to this fact, many crimes can easily be predicted through the perpetrator’s search history. As Morris mentioned, it would not be difficult to imagine that people who wrote about their teachers negatively online, researched their faculty members lives extensively, and then purchased an assault rifle had the potential to become a murderer. Through data mining, you can easily perceive events that were previously difficult to predict. Ignoring the online information automatically collected, instead of using it for the greater good, could potentially be considered wasteful. 

21st Century Cryptanalyst

In chapter one of The Code Book, Simon Signh writes, “Cryptanalysis could not be invented until a civilization had reached a sufficiently sophisticated level of scholarship in several disciplines, including mathematics, statistics, and linguistics.” (p. 15) This is a valid point. However, the necessity of education to become a cryptanalyst during the period of deep reflection in 610 AD, has changed dramatically in the modern world.

600 AD was not, by any means, a time of accessible education. Ptolemy’s influence had just reached the world in 100 AD, and Brahmagupta, who developed rules for the mathematical applications of 0, was just becoming prominent. Some of our basic principles were still being discovered. Needless to say, not everyone could afford the luxuries of schooling, even in basic subjects. 

Today, we have much more than ever before. Public schooling is essentially available to all of the western world, and many more people have the ability to learn the disciplines required to be an amatur cryptanalyst without prestiguous schooling. The fact that we can now use the “on our own” approach to achieve what many long before us needed ages to accomplish, is not something that should be looked upon shamefully, but instead as an indication of how far society has come.


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