The History and Mathematics of Codes and Code Breaking

Author: Jojo Page 1 of 2

Who Defines the Boundary between Surveillance and Privacy

When I first entered this class, I was very pro-privacy. But after hearing arguments from both sides, I have come to understand that surveillance is necessary. And the argument on our side is not against surveillance, but rather focusing on the word “wide latitude”. What is considered a wide enough latitude? Who is the one to assess that? When the government wants more surveillance that might not have been proven necessary, who is to stop them? The emphasis should be placed on the checks and balances that should be implemented into any surveillance system, and the establishment of boundary between surveillance and privacy.

One might argue that in face of threats to national security, one’s feelings about privacy should be disregarded. I agree that in times of crisis there should be certain measures of crisis. However, it would be a great downplay to say that “privacy” is merely a word or a feeling. Privacy is tightly linked to the freedom of speech. Whoever controls the surveillance controls the information flow, and in our time, information flow is everything.

Surveillance is not harmless because it’s placed in the hands of men. I need not draw any example from history because we can all come to the conclusion that men can be evil. Men could be wrong. Power could be abused. And surveillance is probably one of the greatest powers of the government in our time. Electronic surveillance in the interest of national security is necessary, providing that it’s effective and it’s in the interest of national security. However, the downplay of the privacy of citizens is unacceptable. The foundation of the nation, the first amendment of speech and its free press clause, could be compromised if all privacy is invaded.

In Public but Unpublic

In It’s Complicated, boyd wrote: “there’s  a big difference between being in public and being public… mere participation in social media can blur these two dynamics.”

I especially like the author’s analogy between a subway conversation and a social media post online. While both contents are in public, neither is being public. A subway conversation, while audible to those around, is meant to be private. Likewise, while a social media post is visible to all, it’s meant to be private as well, or at least exclusively shared between only a few. While teenagers seem to understand and practice the concept almost unintentionally, adults struggle to grasp the ideology behind their actions.

Once social media emerged, it has become unstoppable. Teenagers, a generation facing the rise of such communication, face particular challenges in terms of personal privacy and social interactions. Humans share the need to be in public, be a part of a social group or a community. It’s hard to maintain offline when interactions are occurring online. And the mere concept of social media – the ideology of a more open and interactive space – is blurring the line between what’s accessible and what’s private.

In traditional senses, inaccessibility equals privacy. If a diary is locked, parents would know its content is intended to be kept private. However, the same kind of physical lock has disappeared in the age of social media. Teenagers are relying on social conventions to lock their online presence, while parents are failing to follow such invisible rules.

The public-by-default mindset of social media makes it harder for teenagers to navigate their privacy. Because the social environment is so different online, it’s easy to think that it has completely different rules when it comes to maintaining privacy. For instance, while almost no one would choose to broadcast a conversation in public, many would post such conversations online. Personally, I believe it might be due in part to the illusion-like nature of social media. While we know the content we post online are visible to virtually everyone, it doesn’t feel like we have a full house of audience. The concept of everyone is different in social media from its traditional meaning.

The expression of privacy has changed; yet its core meaning and challenges haven’t changed.

Why Strong Encryption to General Public

In the age of digital technology, access to encryption is of similar importance as the access to free speech. While the arguments against public encryption technology are certainly valid considering public security, it’s unreasonable to deny the public access to such a critical element of online communication, especially since most communications using encryption don’t concern criminal activity.

First of all, if the public has no access to encryption, many online activities would be vulnerable: medical records, online transactions and addresses. While the lack of encryption makes wire tapping easier, it also makes criminal activity easier. Most people get online without knowing which system of encryption they are adopting. The existence of internet is making people more likely to share their personal information without the knowledge of cyber security. If public lack the basic methods to encrypt their information online, criminals can more easily obtain user information.

Secondly, the right to encrypt a message online is no different from encrypting a written message that’s sent physically. If the government had no right to interfere with that type of encryption, they shouldn’t be granted the authority solely due to the change in communication methods. While policies should adapt to the changing world, underlying concepts and guidelines should remain the same.

While it’s important to consider public security, we have to take in mind the basic needs of encryption. If people are in domestic violence situations or other situations that demand secure and anonymous conversations, having no encryption would put people (without any criminal intention) at risk.

Numbers Station Podcast

Numbers Stations is particularly interesting for me for many reasons. In the intro part, the author starts by talking about his personal connection with the topic, thus making his listeners more engaged in the subject. And then, the author uses a mixtape of different radio waves to create a context for the listeners. The author then wastes no time to dive right into a very simple and elegant introduction of the topic, starting with an example of the spanish numbers station.

What’s particularly interesting to me is how the author went a long way to quote a lot of different sources. By stating everyone’s name and position, he successfuly convinced his audience the credibility of his sources and brought many different perspectives to the podcast. He managed to keep all his examples authentic, despite the fact that they are all in different languages. The audience was provided with a great historic context. The author also ended by exploring the contemporary development of the topic, creating a sense of entirety for the topic.

The music use throughout the podcast was very intriguing. The tone of the music remained almost unchanged, and he adjusted different tunes to fit with the plot line. Overall the podcast is a mixture of many elements and its audience would never get bored.

The Allies’ Resource Allocation

In his blog post, the student argued that besides the overconfidence of the German, the strength of the Allies’ code itself contributed to the breaking of the Enigma code. I thought this was a very interesting viewpoint and never considered this before. The surprising usage of the Navajo language as military encryption proved to be unbreakable, thus allowing the Allies more time and resources allocated solely on cryptography.

The importance of resource usage and allocation is certainly important in the cryptography war. German’s sloppy and careless usage of the machine played a role in the Allies’ success. The machine workers made a few mistakes that wouldn’t have been made if they had a certain level of understanding on the working mechanisms behind the Enigma machine. For instance, by never repeating letters in the daily scrambler settings, they actually eliminated repetitions for the Allies’ cryptanalysists. On the other hand, Allies were especially protective of their codes, with only Navajo speakers controlling the content of the messages.

In addition, as the Allies had more time and resource available to focus on code-breaking, they were able to allocate the accurate resources. As they dealt with the Enigma machine, the former strategy of recruiting linguists was abandoned. They were able to focus their resources on scientists and mathematicians, and thus eventually beating the machine with another machine.

Why Cryptanalysis Seems Easier Than It Actually Is

Singh’s examples in book seem easy to comprehend. The methods are relatively straightforward and codes were broken within few pages of the book. However, in practice the process of cryptanalysis is usually much more complicated. I believe there are three reasons for that.

First of all, the cryptanalyst has no idea what type of code is being used. Surely a frequency analysis could narrow the answer: if frequency is equal for all letters it’s probably a Vigenère cipher; if frequencies don’t change it’s probably a transposition cipher; if frequencies follow the same pattern as English alphabets it’s probably some type of shift cipher. However, those are not the only types of ciphers that can be utilized, and even if we manage to narrow it down to a few of them, they might each require different cryptanalysis methods, and that takes time.

Secondly, cryptographers could mix unimportant information with the actual content. For instance, they could encode a string of random letters and hide the real message in between them. For a cryptanalyst, if the bunk of the message doesn’t make sense, he/she would assume the analysis is wrong and resort to the next solution.

Last but not least, it’s hard to guess. In a lot of the examples in the book, the author takes several guesses and one of them yielded the right result. When we are doing cryptanalysis, sometimes it takes a dozen guesses to find the right answer. Sometimes we are not finding the right piece of code to guess upon. All of which takes up a lot of time and in the world of cryptanalysis, time is everything.

The Hidden Meaning Behind Words

The display in Newseum raised the matter of privacy v. security, with a special focus on FBI and its increased security measures after the 9/11 attack. The issue posed striking similarities with the story of the Little Brother, as the DHS increased the scale of its surveillance after a terrorist attack on the Bay bridge.

What I found interesting is the link people drew between words. For instance, surveillance means security and privacy means liberty. On the other hand, increased surveillance measures doesn’t necessarily mean that safety is ensured. The loss of privacy to social media and websites such as Google/Amazon might not have such a strong connection to liberty.

If we discuss the terms surveillance and security at face value, they are both neutral words. Although there is a negative connotation associated with the word itself, surveillance without further action on the information obtained can seem harmless at times. However, as we discussed about the podcast, surveillance acts like a Panopticon, altering people’s behaviors as they know they’re being watched.

The wording on the display board itself is also interesting. It uses the words privacy and security instead of privacy and surveillance. On the other hand, on the bottom it raises the question: what would you give up to “feel” safer, this time using the word “feel” instead of “be”.

Telegraph and Modern Day Technology on Cryptography

I believe the advent of the telegraph motivated the use of more secure cipher due to three reasons. Firstly, telegraph workers were gaining access to all messages being communicated through telegraph. While they were “sworn to secrecy”, people might still seek ways to encrypt their messages from the eyes of telegraph workers. Secondly, communication was becoming more convenient and efficient, which could simultaneously increase the number of messages being sent every day. With such a drastic increase in quantity of communication came an increase in communicators. As more people became involved, they naturally sought to encrypt their messages from others. Last but not least, it became easier to intercept a message compared to utilizing the “Chambers” in previous times. Spies without such resource could tap into a telegraph line and obtain information. Thus, more encryption was in demand.

Modern day technologies have certainly changed the way we communicate. We have grown used to expecting instant responses and having quick conversations. We are accustomed to having some information transparent – for instance our own posts on social media as well as those of others. We are familiar with the accessibility of information and resources online and the convenience of the search engine.

Those modern technologies certainly have implications on secrecy and privacy. Private conversations are essentially computer codes routed through our phone companies or social media platforms. We are willing to reveal more and more personal information online – from date of birth to credit card numbers. We are utilizing vast encryption without knowing how they work or who designed them. This fairly protects the security of our messages but also renders us vulnerable of them being leaked. On the other hand, the public – especially the younger generation – has shown a clear affection towards secrecy. The success of Snapchat largely depends on its function to delete after view.

When Marcus Read a Quote from On the Road

In Chapter 14, Marcus read Ange an excerpt from the book On the Road, a semi-bioautography portraying Jack Kerouac hitchhiking around America and the incidents and people he encountered along the way (221). The scene took place right after Marcus got suspended from school and before he and Ange decided to launch an online press conference via a video game platform. I was surprised that the author used such a long paragraph to include a quote seemingly unrelated to the plotline. On the other hand, the character of On the Road represents Marcus himself, as “the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved”. It ties in closely with one of Xnetters’ central concepts: to never trust anyone over twenty-five – those who have lost the ability to go “mad”. They are perceived as “terrorists” by mainstream society, but they, who “never yawn or say a commonplace thing”, pushed the movement forward, eventually to its victory. In between Marcus’ long-time struggle of self-doubt and confusion, he moved forward because he was “desirous of everything at the same time”. Amidst his “madness”, he found love and peace on the road.

The Alluring Concept of Surveillance

In his essay “Mining Student Data Could Save Lives”, Michael Morris argues that universities should take actions to threat-assess their students’ online activities as well as mental states, thus maximizing the protection of campus safety and preventing large-scale assaults.

In his article, Morris argues that since universities already have access to almost all students’ online activities, they should be the front line of defense, especially as “in the aftermath of nearly every large-scale act of campus violence in the United States, investigation has revealed that early-warning signs had been present but not recognized or acted upon”. However, he does stress the distinction between mining for law violation and mining for university policy violation, as well as a due process that ensures students’ rights.

Personally I agree with Morris’ argument. While the line between security and privacy has always raised heated debates, in the context of universities the line is drawn rather clearly. As Morris states, data mining should strictly abide to the search for large-scale attacks targeting campus members.

The concept of surveillance is alluring with its strong link to “security”, causing the constant overlook of important questions regarding such matter: who is surveiling; what are they looking for; how would they act on their knowledge? Different from Morris’ view, I do not believe that voluntary usage of the internet means voluntary submission of personal data. With the majority of internet users ignorant of techniques behind web surfing, internet usage proposes no indication of forfeiting individual privacy to the institution.

On the other hand, if information is obtained about a large-scale attack, should and could the university take no action? Does the university not pose an obligation to protect its students, workers and faculty members? Does individual privacy have higher value than lives? Some may argue yes, some hesitate, and some give a definite no. The debate is ancient; and no conclusion has been reached.

I agree with Morris because in a university, the size and conduct of surveillance could be monitored. The process could potentially be semi-transparent. And most importantly, the goal is straight-forward. The university would only screen for campus violence, and nothing else. There is no interest involved, no higher authority exercising power on students. Thus comes the reassurance that personal privacy could be retained to its maximum.

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