The History and Mathematics of Codes and Code Breaking

Author: Riley

The Path to Online Voting

I’ve only recently begun working on my paper, but it has proved to be much more interesting than I originally anticipated. Online voting is such a relevant and current issue, as it very well could be widely instituted in the near future, and it has such large implications. It is basically a distillation of the security vs. privacy debate, throwing in the issue of trust in government. My research has mostly consisted of Google Scholar and the Vanderbilt databases, which are far more helpful than any resources I used in high school. I was surprised that when I search a topic in google scholar, if Vanderbilt has access to it, a link appears on the side of the search results page, which has really streamlined the research process.

The most challenging part of the process thus far has been sifting through all of the information, as there is much more of it than I expected. I’m trying to read sources on all sides of the issue – both pro-online-voting and anti-online-voting – and it’s just a lot to take in. Also, a lot of the studies and information I’m finding is from the 2004 to 2008 period, which, while not completely outdated, also aren’t completely current in the world of technology. Since online voting still hasn’t become a widespread American practice, however, the research and arguments still seem to apply well to the current situation.

I’m currently in the drafting stage, pulling all of the information together. It’s a bit difficult to synthesize all the material, but the actual writing is always my favorite part of the process – figuring out which arrangements work, and what words feel right. My topic has definitely pulled me in, and I’m excited to continue exploring the nuances of the issue.

Privacy First

The government should absolutely not have “wide latitude” to use cryptography to surveil citizens. Throughout history, the role of United States government has been to protect the rights of its citizens. It is bound to this duty, especially when it comes to protecting citizens from itself. A majority of citizens are not engaged in illegal activities, and they have a right to have their privacy ensured. It is nothing to say that our thoughts are kept private from each other, what good is there in that when the government can, and possibly does, read everything you say? That isn’t privacy. That is something that looks like privacy, but that has a back door for people who have too much access to possibly abused power.

Photo Credit: hyku via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: hyku via Compfight cc

In Singh Chapter 7, Singh mentions that a major concern of the government’s is their continued access to wiretapping, which is supposedly essential to their catching criminals and terrorists, etc. This does not mean that they should have the ability to perform a wiretap on basically anyone, whether or not they have reason to believe someone has committed a crime. There is no way to no whether the people who would be given “wide latitude” to surveil citizens would only do so in the name of national security. Also, as Singh mentions, “in America in 1994 there were roughly a thousand court-sanctioned wiretaps, compared with a quarter of a million federal cases” (Singh Ch. 7). Wiretaps that are not essential to the majority of cases cannot be the basis on which Americans cede their right to privacy. Never in history has the government had such invasive means of gathering information, and they should not be given such capabilities now.

Collaboration Wins the War

Allied cryptanalysts succeeded over German cryptographers largely because of collaboration. It was not just one country working against the Germans, but the entire Allied powers.

The chain of collaboration began with the French: though they didn’t feel the need to pursue cryptanalysis of the Germans, they provided the initial information necessary to do so. After World War I, the French thought that further war was impossible, so when provided with Hans-Thilo Schmidt’s information on the workings of the Enigma machine, they passed them on to Poland. Poland did face an immediate threat, however, in the form of Russia. A Polish cryptanalyst, Rejewski, did much of the work at the front end of the effort to crack Enigma. His methods, when Poland suspected that they would no longer be able to continue covert cryptanalysis, were then passed on to England. Alan Turing and the others at Bletchley Park were able to use this information as a springboard for cracking the evolving Enigma.

“Handshake” by USMC photo by Cpl. Paula M. Fitzgerald – Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Without collaboration, the decipherment of the Enigma would not have occurred, or at least not in the manner and order of events in which it occurred. The Polish would not have received an Enigma machine if the French had not given it to them, thinking that the Polish could better use the information. The Polish knew that they couldn’t continue cryptanalyzing, and instead of simply shutting down operations, they pass the information on, so that the final goal can be realized. If individual countries had cared more about their own fame than the bigger picture, the war might have ended drastically differently.

A Nod to the Opposition

Little Brother, while it is an incredible novel, is also a brilliant argument. The construction of the novel reads like a well planned out, immensely entertaining argumentative essay. Cory Doctorow presents readers with a situation in which privacy is being subordinated, or rather completely ignored, for the “safety” of San Francisco. His argument is very obviously in support of privacy. He does not, however, ignore the other side of the issue. Like an author of a well-written essay would, Doctorow recognizes the stance of the opposition and explains that side through the character of Marcus’ father.

In the beginning of Chapter 9, Marcus’ father has been detained by police officers after having the identity on one of his tracked cards “jammed,” or switched with people who are nowhere near him. At first, he’s absolutely furious, which is great for Marcus, or at least he thinks it is, because his father is finally seeing how awful and invasive the security is. Instead, his father is relieved by the idea that the DHS is putting more officers out on the streets to catch the “saboteurs” who are creating the jump in suspicious activity. Several times throughout the novel, passages are dedicated to the reactions of Marcus’ parents: his dad defending the DHS’s need to protect the city by whatever means necessary, and his mom explaining to Marcus that his father is just scared. Doctorow doesn’t really say that Marcus’s father is a terrible person for acting the way or believing the things he does, he just works hard, through Marcus, to prove why it isn’t the best way to look at the situation.

I found this nod to the opposition highly encouraging in my reading of Little Brother, as I felt as though Doctorow was trying to avoid the kind of blind, all-consuming argument that leads to people discounting what one says. He wasn’t trying to say that privacy is more important than safety, or that the government shouldn’t protect it’s citizens; he was saying that privacy cannot be eclipsed by a need for safety, and that the government needs to protect citizens’ rights as well as citizens themselves. I’m not sure what I was expecting when I first started reading Little Brother, but the intellectual construction and content of the novel far surpassed anything I thought I would find.

Unfinished Business

To the amateur cryptographer, or simply the budding enthusiast, the Beale Ciphers represent the ideal, a perfect challenge, and, the clincher, buried treasure. Starting as children, we are read pirate stories: buried treasure, untold riches, fame and fortune for those who find it. The fact that the Beale Ciphers have a story to go along with them increases the draw. The possibility that a story is all this is lends to the sense of mystery, and to the success if one were to succeed in deciphering the first and third ciphers. For amateurs, I think there is always a pull around trying to decipher the big ciphers that no professional has been able to crack. Part of that pull seems like a lofty dream, and part of it seems like human ego: the “I can do it, even though no one else can” mentality.

To professional cryptographers, though, the Beale Ciphers, while they have all the same draws as for amateurs, also represent unfinished business. They are half-cracked, partially deciphered. Why aren’t the other two ciphers decipherable? Are they really just gibberish? Giving up on something so fascinating, and something that has frustrated incredible cryptanalysts for over a century, isn’t an option to a community of professional puzzle-solvers. Since the second cipher was deciphered, there’s a sense of hope surrounding the Beale Ciphers, that maybe they are as real as the story would have us believe. And if they are real, how can cryptanalysts give up? Treasure worth $20 million in today’s currency is mind-blowing. Not many people are going to turn their backs on that, especially if they think they have the ability to figure it out.

Know Your Security

In this day and age, very little is more important in everyday life than keeping safe while on the internet. As described in “the 5 Biggest Online Privacy Threats of 2013,” there are many online threats that many people don’t know about or wouldn’t think about. My biggest advice to you would be to know where your data is, and to be informed about internet safety in general. It sounds basic, but the realization that everything on the internet, even once deleted, can be found again is incredibly important. Companies are tracking your internet usage and interests in order to market to you or even sell your information, and there isn’t a whole lot that government or laws can currently do to protect you against this.

Use the cloud only when you need to access something from multiple devices, so that things aren’t staying on the cloud for longer than 180 days and becoming “abandoned.” For everything else, if you need a backup system or extra storage, use an external hard drive. It’s considered completely your property, and the government can’t look through/request any of it from Google or the Cloud. Also if you need to put something in the Cloud, on GoogleDrive, etc., leave it there for only a short period of time, and when you’ve completed the assignment or project for which you needed it, take it out of the cloud storage! This advice may sound super simple, and perhaps inconvenient to put into practice, especially if you have your entire life’s photo albums in a cloud server, but it can definitely help keep your information private. Advancing technology, while it does make life easier, is not necessarily private or particularly safe!

Blog Assignment #1: Security and Civilization

In Chapter 1 of The Code Book Singh discusses the overarching issues that Mary Queen of Scots faced during and leading up to the trial for her execution. What I found most interesting, and enlightening, about the chapter were the circumstances surrounding Mary’s incrimination, and our subsequent discussion about security. I’d previously thought of codes as a fairly surefire way to communicate important information, but Mary obviously did too, and that did not turn out well for her! She was too confident in her codes, and also in the people who were helping her to communicate them. Our discussion was eye-opening in terms of thinking about doubting the codes one writes. If someone is too confident in his or her codes, he or she won’t take any more precautions, such as using vague or roundabout speech, to ensure the secrecy of a course of action, and one’s freedom from incrimination.

I also thought it was particularly interesting to discuss the implications of the development of a society as a whole on the ability of individuals to use deciphering techniques without any previous training. Children in our generation and younger use codes to gossip, and send each other messages they don’t want everyone to see. Problem solving is taught in most disciplines in schools, and children are taught to apply these techniques to everyday life, which makes amateur code breaking easier without any instruction. Since our society has achieved a particular level of sophistication in varied subjects, we are all ingrained with the basic tools to use deciphering techniques, including the ability to read, which was not widespread back in the time of Mary Queen of Scots. Techniques that seem obvious to a student today would be quite the discovery for professional cryptanalysts hundreds of years ago.

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