The History and Mathematics of Codes and Code Breaking

Author: Nathan

Writing Process

For this project, I chose to write about the Internet of Things (IoT) and smart devices. My system was to first create an outline of how I wanted to structure my paper. Here I got into detail about what specific questions needed to be researched. It should start with a general explanation of what the Internet of Things actually is and how it affects our lives now and how it will do so in the future. Since I will also be talking about smart devices, I will discuss how our smart devices already communicate with each other and what types of new devices are being developed that will further increase and improve this machine to machine communication. I also wrote out a clear thesis so I can focus on what I am actually arguing and avoid getting side tracked. Now that I have the structure I just need to write out the paper. What I still need to do is finalize my research so I can organize the rest of my argument. The most challenging part was finding scholarly papers on my topic, it was much easier to find informative articles on blogs instead. The best part was doing all the research and learning a lot more about the Internet of Things.

Privacy in Moderation

The debate over privacy and government surveillance seems to present opposite ends of the spectrum. The government does not necessarily need to have “wide latitude” but it still needs some latitude to use surveillance for the benefit of our nation’s security. Completely preventing the government from being able to monitor suspicious activity would be detrimental to our society. Singh talks about the drug dealers, organized crime, terrorists, and pedophiles as the “Four Horsemen of the Infocalypse,” (Singh 305) and how they would most benefit from stronger encryption. Government involvement would allow the possibility of these criminals being stopped. The counterargument is that our privacy is more important, but that argument does not look at the full picture. For example, if there was a terrorist group plotting to attack a city and the government had no power to monitor online activity and thus unable to prevent the attack, we would have essentially sacrificed innocent people’s lives for the protection of our privacy. That is not a fair trade.

Photo credit: “Padlock” by wayne wayne via Flickr CC.

Perhaps it is our individualistic society that fosters this attitude, but privacy should not be prized over people’s lives. Besides, there is value to government use of electronic surveillance. With the number of people that have access to the internet, we have created a sort of virtual society, and as is evident with any society in the real world, crime is bound to exist. A little bit of monitoring could definitely benefit us. If the government is allowed to use electronic surveillance to a certain extent or within specific restrictions, then our privacy would still be protected and the government would still be able to provide national security.

A Boost of Motivation

The mindset for the Allies had changed between the First World War and the Second World War. After their success in cracking Germany’s ciphers in the First World War, the Allies felt like that could crack anything Germany tries to encipher. However, once the Germans started using the Enigma machines, the Allies were stumped. This change in attitude might be attributed to the fact that they were not in direct threat at that time so they didn’t have the motivation to try to decipher the messages. That along with the hopelessness that might come with failed attempts would make them lose motivation. Poland, however, was threatened so they had to do everything they could to decipher those messages. Therefore, with the help of Schmidt and Rejewski, they reached a breakthrough in cracking the enigma. If it wasn’t for their breakthroughs, the Allies may not have been able to crack it. Gaining that knowledge may have been the motivation they needed to fully uncover how the Enigma machine works. The Allies were also able to pick up on some keys that Germany’s operators would send. The operators would sometimes pick three consecutive letters from the keyboard which the Allies started picking up on.

Photo credit: "Enigma Machine (Bletchley Park)" by Tim Gage via Flickr CC

Photo credit: “Enigma Machine (Bletchley Park)” by Tim Gage via Flickr CC

Sometimes they would repeat the same keys and therefore the cryptanalysts would be able to predict them. Overall, cracking the Enigma took the efforts and collaboration of many individuals working as a team.

Taking control

In chapter 4 of Little Brother, there’s a passage where Marcus talks about the idea of privacy. He says that it is a feeling of liberation when you have an aspect of your life that is completely under your control. He compares it to things that we all do that are not shameful but would still require privacy. This passage struck out to me because it made me look at the whole online privacy issue in a new light. It made me consider the psychological implications of online privacy. Doctorow  brings up a great point through Marcus’s voice: For some people, online privacy is not just important because they have something to hide, it is a way to take control of their lives. I never considered this psychological angle to it, but with all of our lives being invested in the online world, it can seem easy to lost control especially considering how fast technology progresses. As humans we are inclined to creating organized systems and keeping things under control. So it makes sense that some of us would be cautious about oversharing our information online. It is very likely that people would feel a sense of vulnerability by having their information online and not feeling like they can keep up with it. Having this privacy can give people the sense of control they need so it doesn’t get too overwhelming.


Unbreakable Cipher

The Great Cipher used by Louis XIV remained unbroken for 200 years.  What were the factors that led to such a secure cipher?

The Great Cipher, invented by Antoine and Bonaventure Rossignol, was one of the toughest codes to decipher. There are some very important factors to consider when trying to understand why it may have taken so long for someone to crack it. First of all, Antoine got his recognition for deciphering the letter that resulted in a victory for the French. With his work in cryptanalysis he and his son were appointed to the senior positions in the court, so by this time he has already established his reputation as being one of the best cryptanalysts in Europe. His expertise gives him an advantage because he can recognize the weaknesses in ciphers, therefore when he has to create his own, he would know how to make it indecipherable. Of course, this is relative because ciphers can only stay indecipherable for so long before new methods are developed by cryptanalysts to break them. Second, it is usually a weakness to have a long cipher text because it gives the other person a better chance to recognize patterns, however, this cipher had thousands of symbols with only 587 of them being different. This only makes it a lot more difficult for someone to decipher it because it gives them too much information to work with which instead of showing a pattern, creates confusion. Finally, the more time that passes, the harder it is for someone to decipher a text because of lack of contextual clues. When it is the same time period, there is a better chance to crack a cipher text because you would be fully immersed in the linguistics of that society. Since language evolves over time it is best to try to decipher a code as soon as possible. Because of the complexity of the Great Cipher it did take a lot of dedication and persistence for Bazeries to finally crack it after 200 years.

Watch what you post

After reading the article “The 5 biggest online privacy threats of 2013,” you should be aware of how little privacy you have, in case you were not aware of it already. One of the main things you can do, which is also one of the simplest, is to understand that nothing you post or share on the internet is private because someone will be able to get access to it. Therefore you have to be careful about what you share. Aside from just the common sense approach when it comes to the information you can control, we can talk about the regular information that we share with the virtual world without considering the consequences. As mentioned in the article, whenever we share pictures, our location can be tagged to the picture. It is important to be cautious about this because stalking is a serious issue, and if a stalker gets access to your pictures, he/she will be able to track you. This would potentially put you in danger, so you can take precaution by monitoring your settings. This also applies to being careful overall on social media; even if you change your settings hackers can easily access your posts so if you are one who shares every detail about your life, it gives the hackers all the information they would need about you. Overall, you just have to use your common sense to make the right decisions. As long as you are aware of how little privacy you actually have on the internet, you should become more careful about the virtual footprints that you leave.


Cryptography in History

After our discussion in class on chapter 1 of The Code Book, I was able to look at the history of cryptography with a new perspective. It was interesting to read about how a society would not be able to decipher the codes until it reached a certain level of scholarship which accounted for linguistics, statistics, etc. I didn’t consider the fact that one would need a strong background in several disciplines in order to contribute to the field of cryptanalysis with creativity and great insight. It makes sense that one would especially need a strong background in linguistics to be able to make connections in a grammatical sense and across various languages when deciphering a code. Another thing I learned is that since not everyone was literate at the time, only the wealthy, who had the privilege of a getting an education, were able to use cryptography. Of course, individuals in a position of power would be the ones to have important information they would want to encrypt. The common man at that time would not even need to use cryptography for day to day needs. The most important lesson from the book was that no encryption is better than a weak one. I would suggest that no matter how confident you are in your encryption, you should always be discrete with the information you share.

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