The History and Mathematics of Codes and Code Breaking

Author: kolapo

Why are People Still Trying to Solve the Beale Ciphers?

The first, most obvious answer to this question is that people are still attempt the Beale ciphers for the possible monetary gain. 20 million dollars is a lot of money, and solving the ciphers would be a relatively low effort way of acquiring all that money and getting rich. When I say relatively low effort, I mean that it doesn’t require years of schooling, starting a business, or somehow becoming wealthy in the way the average millionaire does. In a sense, solving the Beale ciphers is like winning the lottery, except that it actually requires skill.

The Beale ciphers appeal to people because they believe that they don’t have to do too much to solve it, and that if they somehow did, the benefits would be worth it. I think that as people continue to try the ciphers and rule out certain ideas, it makes newcomers confident that they’ll be able to figure out a new possibility. Hypothetically, if everyone on the planet were able to try a method to solve this multiple times a day, It would slowly be narrowed down until somebody figured it out. This could take many years, but it would still be solved eventually. This group effort is a possibility for why people still want to try it. In addition, someone could just use the second letter for clues, and find the treasure without actually solving the rest of the cipher, which takes out the intellectual effort and really makes it like winning the lottery. All they would have to do is dig up a whole bunch of holes 4 miles from Buford, and eventually, they may find it.

The last reason why it might still be appealing is that its just fun to try. A lot of people love solving puzzles and stuff like that, and this isn’t all that different fro Harajuku Madness from Little Brother. It’s the same kind of thing that draws people to things like Cicada and Geocaching and other things like that. Also, who wouldn’t want to be the person known for solving a 200 year old cipher and getting 20 million dollars?

How do Experiences Change Our Views on Data-Mining?

One thing I noticed both in this book and in real life is how quickly people’s opinions can change on a subject after dealing with certain experiences. In the case of this novel, the subject is data-mining and surveillance. Throughout the course of the book, we see many different stances on privacy rights, but we also see many people change their ideas after going through life-changing experiences.

One of the primary examples of this is Marcus’s dad Drew, who we see going back and forth between sides multiple times. On page 109, we see Drew come back home, after Marcus was questioned by the police. To Marcus and his mom, this questioning was unjust and a waste of time. According to them, it made no sense to detain every single person in the city who showed some sort of odd travel behavior. But when Drew heard about it, he believed that they were just doing their jobs, and if anything, all of this tracking and surveillance was helping to keep them safe. This was a complete turnaround from page 78, immediately after Marcus returned from DHS custody. His dad was absolutely livid, but at the time, he hadn’t had a chance to learn what had happened. Later in the book, Drew changes his mind again, after learning what truly happened to Marcus after the bridge bombing. He went from supporting all the extra surveillance, to hating it in an instant. This shows that just having one extreme experience can completely change one’s views on a lot of subjects.

Not only did this happen in the book, but I have also experienced this in our class. When we originally answered the question about security and privacy, I believed that having privacy was more important than having more security. Once we read the article about the college campus and data-mining, my opinion changed to having more security. After reading little brother though, my opinion has changed back to more privacy. It’s possible that these examples are skewing my opinions because of how extreme they are, but I’m still realizing how easy it was for them to change my mind. From now on, I plan on being more aware of this as I continue to learn more about how surveillance can be used on us.

A different view on “privacy vs security”

In the essay Mining Student Data Could Save Lives, Michael Morris advocates for the idea that colleges should have access to the data of their students in order to prevent and safety hazards that some students may pose. At the time this was written, Morris describes how FERPA (Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act) rights had just been reviewed and changed, so that universities could use a students information without consent if it was thought necessary to protect the safety of others. That relied on observations from other students and faculty in order to make assumptions. Now, technology enables us to use algorithms designed to find unusual behaviors, and these algorithms are able to accurately predict the outcomes of these situations. Morris argues that campuses should be using this technology to analyze their students network traffic in order to prevent those safety hazards that may be a threat. Although many universities and their students might believe that this would be a violation of privacy, their data is already being used all over the internet. Morris describes examples of algorithms recognizing unusual credit card purchases, and others that are the reason why one might see an advertisement about something that they were shopping for earlier. Overall, Morris believes that colleges should be using these advances in technology to increase their security and safety, even if it may come at the cost of privacy.

This article gave me a different view on the “privacy vs security” argument. I originally said that I wouldn’t want my data to be viewed and used, but I never thought about applying it to a situation like this. In economics so far this semester, I’ve learned about opportunity costs. Opportunity cost emphasizes that in a situation, one should only do “it” if the benefits outweigh the costs. When applying that idea to this situation, I definitely believe that the benefits of giving up my privacy to my university would outweigh the costs. One of the costs of holding on to my privacy could possibly be my life or a serious injury if my university couldn’t act on a potentially violent student. I think this is pretty much the biggest possible cost, and I most definitely would not give up my life for a little more privacy.

The Consequences of a Weak Encryption

“On page 41, Singh writes, “The cipher of Mary Queen of Scots clearly demonstrates that a weak encryption can be worse than no encryption at all.”  What does Singh mean by this and what does it imply for those who would attempt to keep their communications secret through cryptography?” (Question 1)

When encrypting messages, having a weak cipher can severely jeopardize the security of the message that is trying to be hidden. In the example in the book, Mary Queen of Scots was oblivious to the fact that her encrypted messages were being solved easily, and because of this, she and Babington made clear in their “secret” message that the plan was to kill Elizabeth. Had they not only encrypted their message but also made vague the exact components of their plan, it is possible that there wouldn’t have been enough evidence against Mary Queen of Scots. If instead they had used no encryption, it is likely that they wouldn’t have been so open and clear about discussing their plans. This most likely wouldn’t have helped their plan work that much better, though it could have possibly saved Mary Queen of Scots from being executed.

The notion that “a weak encryption can be worse than no encryption at all” is a good rule that all cryptographers should abide by. This pushes cryptographers to focus hard on making extremely strong ciphers, especially in today’s society where technology makes it much easier to crack codes in short periods of time. And, while encrypting messages, cryptographers should also make sure to keep their messages vague, so that only the intended recipient who knows the context should be able to decipher the decrypted message. Having a strong encryption and a specific message designed only for the recipient almost completely ensures privacy.

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