The History and Mathematics of Codes and Code Breaking

Author: miles Page 1 of 2

Notes from a Notetaker

To start off, I’ll be taking notes on every argument that is made. Good or bad, sensible or not, I’ll write it down. It will be up to the jurors to pick through this information, deciding which arguments are the strongest, most factual, and most convincing.

That being said, there are some aspects of this debate that it’s crucial we touch upon. First, how effective is the surveillance that those favoring the “security” side argue for? An argument must not be based on hypotheticals. They should include concrete examples of instances in which surveillance has increased security if they hope to convince the jury that security is more important. However, the privacy side must argue more than just “citizens have a right to privacy.” It’s widely accepted that 100% privacy isn’t possible in our country. But what amount of privacy sacrificed is a reasonable amount? Where is “the line” that determines when privacy is violated?  Additionally, both sides should address the concerns of the other side. Each person has different values, and everyone is comfortable giving up different amounts of privacy. Moreover, what makes one person feel “secure” may not make another feel the same. Thus, it’s difficult to craft one policy that pleases the most amount of people. How do we reconcile the opinions of so many people when finding a solution that effects all of them?

It is my thought that the debate will center more around the morals of the statement rather than the legislation. I hope that we discuss what “should” be done, as opposed to what the law may say. However, it will also be important to explore how effective the law has been in preventing privacy violations and promoting security. I’m looking forward to hearing both sides, and copying their arguments into a google doc as fast as I possibly can!

Controlling our Narratives

This post is in response to Brianna’s blog post, “Redefining Privacy.”

To start, I find a lot of Brianna’s points to be extremely accurate and thoughtful. For example, many teens do use social media to “socialize with friends; to gather information on peers we know little about; to attract potential roommates and significant others.” Our purpose for posting online has never been to expose personal details about our lives, and I don’t believe our social media use exposes us more than we’d like to be exposed. And this purpose does not undermine a design for privacy – Brianna is right – it is absolutely about control. I, for example, pick and choose exactly what I post online, choosing what I want to let others see. I control the narrative that people can see, through my different social media networks.

However, it’s also important to discern between different intents on different social media platforms. For example, Facebook is a platform widely used by adults and people that we may have formal connections with. I see the most filtered posts on Facebook – the average college student may be posting wholesome pictures from their dinner out with friends, or sharing an update on a volunteer org that they joined. The next level down would be Instagram, where we are “followed” by most all of our peers, but also some select adults. These pictures and captions may be less formal: glamor shots, funny photos, aesthetically appealing food pics, etc. And the final level would be snapchat, where teens post “stories” at parties, of their friends doing stupid things, of little life-updates such as “I just got a D on that chem test HAHA” that may be viewed as weird or out-of-place on another social media site.

We choose to control our appearances through different social media sites, attempting to maintain a careful and well thought-out list of who can “friend” us on Facebook, “follow” us on Instagram, or see our “story” on Snapchat. For someone like me, who uses all these platforms, it’s easy to slip into the mindset that I’ve got it all planned out. That I know exactly who can see what. However, this is naive and unrealistic. At some point, we must expect to make a mistake, or unintentionally blur these narratives that we design to be so different. And it’s always interesting to see the consequences.


Electronic Everything, Except…

It’s almost comical to read Singh’s prediction, considering the digital world we live in today. He predicts that “electronic mail will soon become more popular than conventional mail,” and that governments will use the internet to help run their countries. These statements have long been true. In fact, I can’t remember the last time I sent someone a letter that wasn’t my mom forcing me to send thank-you cards after my 13th birthday party.

Almost every action we perform using the internet nowadays uses a code. Every time we log-in to a site, our credentials are protected through encryption. In many cases, this is lower-stakes, like on social media platforms, gaming websites, etc. However, this encryption can also be extremely crucial: private email, online banking, and health records are all contained online. For actions such as these, it is imperative that our information is well protected. Someone who had access to all the information we store on the internet could easily ruin our lives.

One of Singh’s predictions, however, has not yet come true. In the US, at least, online voting has not become a reality. Some states do allow some sorts of online voting, whether it’s, or electronic fax or portal, but the majority of voting is done in person at a booth or through absentee ballots. The overarching reason for this is the government’s distrust in their own ability to maintain an uninterrupted and honest election. While smaller countries may find it easier to implement electronic voting, the U.S. faces several problems. First, many citizens in the United States are extremely well educated and well versed in computer encryption systems and hacking. The odds of all the top hackers working for the US government is extremely low. Secondly, there is always international interest in our domestic elections. There have been countless stories in the news (Russia, Ukraine) about other countries trying to interfere with our elections. Online voting would make this much easier, as the internet is very much a worldwide network. Containing voting to an old-school system limits the amount of electronic interference that another citizen or country could have.

Reading the news, shopping, sending messages, and so many more simple tasks have been taken over by the internet – it’ll be interesting to see if the internet continues to develop and eventually takes over voting as well.

Cryptohipster Beliefs

Whitfield Diffie is, in essence, a cryptohipster. Or, one might call him a cryptotarian (crypto libertarian). He graduated from MIT, and studied cryptography just for the thrill of it. In the early 70’s, Diffie had the foresight to realize that one day, people would have their own computers. He believed that “if people then used their computers to exchange emails, they deserved the right to encrypt their messages in order to guarantee their privacy.”

I do agree that private citizens have a right to have access to secure encryption technologies. Encryption technologies would be used to protect communication – the same communication that might take place face-to-face. Since in-person private conversation has never been a right that’s been questioned, why should we give up our communication rights if it’s simply a different medium of communication? Living in America, we have a right to privacy. This right shouldn’t be infringed upon due to the development of the internet. If someone is able to develop their own encryption system, they should be able to use it at their will. There’s a lot of work that goes into developing/utilizing such a system, including the logistical problems that come with key distribution. If people want to go through the trouble of exchanging keys, they should be able to communicate in private.

Women in Cryptanalysis – a Unique Circumstance

For many years, cryptanalysis was an occupation with neither fame nor prestige. It was largely unrecognized in the United States, despite being crucial in many parts of history. However, this lack of renown – the field had barely been established at all, much less established as a “mens field” – created a unique situation that allowed women to enter the field of cryptography easier than other professions.

As the war progressed, it became much less shocking and uncommon that a woman was doing what typically would’ve been seen as mens work. For example, one woman, on secret 8-day trip to Washington to obtain government material, wrote “at times I have to laugh. It is all so foreign to my training, to my family’s old fashioned notions about what and where a woman’s place is, etc… yet none of those things seem to shock the family now. I suppose it is the War.” Whether it was from changing ideas about gender in the mid 1900’s, or simply out of necessity (men couldn’t possibly fill all the wartime jobs), attitudes about women definitely did shift during the War.

Despite progress, notions about gender still had a large effect on a women’s life. For example, early in the war, Elizabeth Friedman wanted to work with the Navy (rather than a cryptanalysis firm) to have a greater impact on her country and the war. However, her male boss censored her mail and communications, keeping her from getting in touch with the Navy. And, later on, when Elizabeth and her husband (also a cryptanalyst) were both working for the Army, Elizabeth was paid exactly half the salary of her husband, even though they worked the same job. We still see this inequality persist today.

Additionally, Friedman was faced with sexist condescension as her reputation grew. Many suspected that her husband was secretly doing her work, or accredited her successes to her husband’s status. Though, there were others on the opposite side – many newspapers liked to create the story that Elizabeth had trained her husband. This time period consisted of many conflicting ideas about gender and identity.

Podcast Critiques

To start, I’m writing this blog post now for the second time. For the second week in a row. To my fellow FYWS Cryptographers, write this in Word, Google Docs, or somewhere that’s not here. Because this website likes to play cruel tricks and delete your post right when you click publish.

Anyway, I listened to The VIC Cipher, One-Time Pod Episode 14. Overall, I enjoyed the podcast, but there were definitely aspects that could’ve been improved. Here’s a “pros and cons” list that I created while listening.


  • Introduction with a narrative style. The opening piece was engaging, and the story-telling style made it easy and fun to listen to.
  • The music seemed mysterious, helping to set the mood from the beginning.
  • The pacing was very appropriate – the podcast moved quickly, but not too quick that the listener couldn’t follow along.


  • After the 3 minutes of story-telling in the beginning of the podcast, it became a lot more informational and dry. It was definitely harder to listen to for the last 10 minutes.
  • Sound effects sometimes seemed out of place and louder than the voice of the narrator.
  • At one point, the podcast took ~30 seconds to allow the listener to get out a pen and pencil. I think it could’ve been more effective to say something along the lines of  “at this point, feel free to pause the podcast and take out a pen and pencil” rather than stopping the whole podcast.
  • Definitely could’ve used some more humor/personality. The middle section was especially dry.

In my podcast, I would love to use the narrative, story-telling style that is used in the opening of this podcast. Additionally, I want to find music and sound effects that help set the mood and engage the listener, drawing them into the story that the podcast is creating. I definitely want to avoid losing the listener, which I hope to do by using a more excited tone, sometimes incorporating humor and more informal aspects.


Ethics vs. Strategy

The Zimmerman Telegram was a telegram from Germany to Mexico containing crucial war information about The Great War. It included the Germans’ plans for unrestricted submarine warfare, as well as a proposal asking Mexico to ally with the Germans and invade the US. The Germans had hoped to attack the US on three fronts: Mexico from the South, Japan from the West, and Germany from the East.

However, this telegram was intercepted and decrypted by the British, led by Admiral Sir William Hall. Upon reading the telegram, rather than warning the Americans about the U-Boat warfare that was about to ensue, he decided to keep the telegram a secret. He did this because he knew that if America publicly condemned Germany’s acts of aggression, the Germans would know that their encryption system had been compromised, and strengthen it. Admiral Hall was thinking long-term; he knew that the Germans could not win the war.

While Admiral Hall’s decision may not have been completely ethical, I do believe it was the right decision to make. Yes, American lives were compromised due to the unrestricted submarine warfare, but if the Germans had changed their encryption the Allies may not have won the war. In wartime, it’s imperative that the most strategic decisions are made. In eventually using the stolen telegram from Mexico to convince America to enter the war, I believe Hall found a happy medium between handing over the telegram and keeping it a secret. Many times, secrets are necessary if kept for the greater good.

The Fallacy of the Panopticon Metaphor

Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon is a hypothetical prison based on two concepts: the idea that the officers can spy on the inmates without the inmates knowing they’re being spied on, and the premise that the inmates can’t communicate with each other due to the separation of their cells. The comparison between current government surveillance and the Panopticon, however, is not an accurate metaphor.

In the Panopticon, the prisoners know they’re in prison. There are physical cells keeping the inmates from talking to each other, reminding them of their imprisonment. However, in reality, the “prisoners” of the government often don’t even know they’re in prison. Many citizens are unaware of the government’s ability to see into their lives through the Internet. They live in ignorant bliss, thinking that their lives are any sort of private. And, because they don’t know they’re “imprisoned”, they don’t have the thought to protect their data, and fight back against those doing the surveillance.

The other caveat is the concept that the prisoners are completely separate from each other. In reality, the web allows us to communicate with each other, and gather information through online sources. If we want to educate ourselves about anything (including governmental surveillance procedures), we can do it. Those who are aware that they’re “imprisoned” do have the ability to band together and rebel, or at least try. The question of how we can best fight back still has yet to be answered.


Is Communication Ever Secure?

Before the telegraph was invented and introduced to society, the only way of sending messages was through written means. If you wanted to send a message to a receiver that lived far away, you needed a middleman – someone to transport the message. The telegraph effectively removed the worry that your message would be intercepted or stolen along the way. Although you knew that the message was being sent to the correct machine, however, you didn’t know that it was reaching its intended receiver in its correct form.  You had to trust that the telegraph operator would be honest and secretive in translating/delivering the message. There was essentially no way of confirming that the correct person was at the other end of the receiver. Additionally, some people wanted to send messages that they were uncomfortable with others reading at all. This led to the encryption of messages even before being given to the operator. The desire to keep messages secret from the sender and protect the message in case it didn’t reach its intended receiver have motivated the use of a more secure cipher, the Vignère cipher. This cipher, more complicated than the monoalphabetic cipher, remained the standard for many years. 

After the telegraph, the telephone was invented. At first, though, the telephone still didn’t allow for direct, secure communication. There were telephone operators that would connect calls, and they could potentially listen in on calls without the either line knowing. However, calls became more secure with the invention of the rotary dial. And now, we communicate through talk, text, or email, typically through our smartphones. Nowadays, most people communicate primarily through text or email, not over the phone. Our communications are surely much more secure now than they were years, even decades ago, but I worry that our messages are never truly secure. There are always ways that companies, hackers, or the government can access anything that travels via the web. The only form of truly secure communication is face-to-face. 

Good Bad Secrets

After San Francisco’s security overhaul, one of the latent consequences were all the “not-terrorists” that were caught as a result of the increased surveillance measures. Marcus specifically mentions husbands and wives caught cheating, kids caught sneaking out, and one teenager whose parents discovered he had been visiting the clinic for AIDS medication. These people certainly aren’t terrorists – in fact, they’re not even drug dealers, thieves, or criminals to any extent. They aren’t guilty people, just “people with secrets” (121).

I believe the ability to keep secrets, to some extent, is a completely necessary aspect of any society. I’m not saying that sneaking out is right or wrong, and I’m certainly not saying everyone should cheat on their spouses, but that these are things that should be discovered (or not) and dealt with by the family, not the government. The government has a duty to ensure the safety of its citizens, but only after obtaining consent from its citizens. And in this case, citizens did not give consent to having details of their private, personal lives exposed. Take, for example, a sexually active gay teen growing up in an extremely religious and conservative family. He may need to visit Planned Parenthood to obtain information and medication to stay safe; however, he may not have come out to his parents yet and may not want them knowing this information for a multitude of reasons. Though this case is nuanced, it represents a more broad category of secrets that are kept for the benefit of both the individual and the family. There will always be secrets that need to be kept and actions that need to be hidden, and it is not the government’s duty to interfere.

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