Cryptography

The History and Mathematics of Codes and Code Breaking

Author: miles

A Slippery Slope

Shootings, suicides, and other similar acts of violence, especially on campuses, have become more prevalent in the last decade than ever before. The free internet (though not one of the larger reasons for this increase, in my opinion) has expanded the accessibility of the resources needed to commit such acts. And in most cases, in the “aftermath of every large-scale act of campus violence,” officials and investigators discover warning signs that, had they found before-hand, could’ve provided reason for authority to intervene.

In his essay Mining Student Data Could Save Lives, Michael Morris argues for the use of data mining on campuses to prevent incidents of campus violence. Since the University essentially controls both the wired and wireless internet network, campus administration has the tools to use algorithms to identify at-risk student behavior. Morris believes that universities should take advantage of this ability to maximize campus safety. Since we already give up so much of our privacy and personal information through social media, what does it matter if we lose a little more?

I agree with this argument, but only to a slight extent. Giving universities the freedom to survey and monitor student activity on their network could be an extremely slippery slope if not taken extremely seriously and carefully. While I do agree that the benefits of preventing large-scale acts of violence do outweigh the need for complete privacy, universities should be controlled in how much access they have for student information, and how they use it. FERPA could possibly be modified to give universities more freedom when it comes to monitoring online student activity, but in a limited and controlled way. Contrary to how Morris makes it seem, there is a substantial amount of information on our computers that we haven’t given up through social media. Though our lives are largely public, I do value personal privacy to some extent. Despite the continually growing need for surveillance and intervention to prevent violence, I do believe universities too much power could open a can of worms that may be difficult to close.

The Theatricality of Cryptography

The first chapter of Singh’s The Code Book is packed with historical examples of cryptography. The Greeks, Persians, Arabs, French, and English, to name a few, were just some of the infinite number of societies and civilizations of which cryptography was crucial to their development. However, most of the examples described did involve people in positions of power. Kings, queens, nobles, and military leaders of all types have had to use cryptography to defend or expand their nations; clearly, cryptography has been crucial to changing history.

Despite the importance of these examples, I do believe that there has been a need for cryptography since the dawn of written language. I can’t imagine that cryptography was only used by well-resourced people; there has always been a need for encryption and secrecy, even if it’s on the most rudimentary level. Perhaps these are the only examples that survived, or perhaps Singh chose to include them because of their dramatic nature – after all, he does need to entice the reader somehow. It would be foolish to say that cryptography requires exceptional resources.

Yes, the most theatrical and interesting stories usually include a plot, some characters, and a dramatic, dire consequence that will result if the code is decrypted. But we can’t discount the more simple, day-to-day interactions that may have required people to encrypt their messages, like a potter who may have needed to protect his or her recipe for glaze, or a citizen who wanted to hide the contents of a letter from their government. I can’t imagine that examples such as these, though less exciting, didn’t exist before the stories of kings, queens, armies, and wars.

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