The History and Mathematics of Codes and Code Breaking

Author: gundamy


While the President could pardon Snowden, doing so would insinuate that the Espionage Act and other, similar policies are irrelevant in a modern context. It would also diminish the government’s credibility in the eyes of the American public, because granting Snowden a pardon would essentially equate to admitting that everything the government has been saying about security and the power of their institutions is untrue.

Collaborators: Felix and Suzy

Semantics, Semantics

In It’s Complicated, by danah boyd, the author remarks that “Journalists, parents, and technologists seem to believe that a willingness to share in public spaces—and, most certainly, any act of exhibitionism and publicity—is incompatible with a desire for privacy” (56). This observation comes in the middle of a discussion about social media and the complicated boundaries of online spaces. Is social media participation an automatic abandonment of all privacy? And to what extent should information be regarded as private when in these spaces?

In my opinion, just because people decide to use social media does not mean they are forfeiting their privacy. However, the issue lies mostly in the perception of what “privacy” is, and the disparities between the beliefs of adults and youth. Those who grew up without Facebook or Twitter may think that because the general public is able to access that information whenever they want, that information is not private.

However, except for in the cases of celebrities or wildly popular teenagers, many people do not have that many friends or followers. This means that what they share, they choose to share with the relatively small community of people they have built in that online space, and any unwelcome intrusions from those who feel their information is public is just that: unwanted and resented. In the specific case of boyd’s book, this may be teenagers trying to keep what autonomy they can online. But in the eyes of their parents, because they can see the information, they feel entitled to invade their children’s privacy.

The Right of a Citizen

The passage in Little Brother that caught my attention was the debate about halfway through concerning the moral implications of breaching citizens’ privacy in the name of security. Marcus ends the debate by quoting from the Declaration of Independence, that it is “the right of the people to alter or abolish” any government that is no longer “deriving just power from the consent of the governed” (Doctorow 180). This novel was published in 2008, before the NSA and Edward Snowden scandal, and in some aspects of the story this is very obvious. The NSA is skimmed over the few times it is mentioned, and it seems to be an impenetrable fortress of hidden information – not so today, after their secrets were published for the world to see.

Though it was to a far lesser extent than in the novel, when the news broke that the NSA had been collecting phone data from millions of Americans people were outraged. Though some privacy has to be given up in order to ameliorate security, such a blatant breach of privacy was something the public was incredibly incensed about. To be American citizens and have the security afforded by such government organizations as the NSA, CIA, and FBI is one thing, but to be secretly spied on by one’s own government was another matter entirely.

Due to the public’s outrage, the NSA was forced to start changing some of its policies, which is a living example of the people’s right to change the government if it is not benefiting them.

A Uniquely American Code

One of the foremost advantages the Allies had during the Second World War was the United States’ Navajo Code Talkers. Because Native American tribes developed language and culture separately from Europe and Asia, there was no basis for the German cryptographers to begin to decrypt their codes. An extra layer of encryption was that the Navajo code corresponded to words or letters in the English language, rather than their own meanings, which made decryption more than simply understanding the Navajo language (which the Germans and Japanese were unable to do, anyway).

Though German forces were overly confident in the Enigma cipher and its complexity and impermeability, it did not mean they were unable to gain ground with cracking the Allies’ ciphers. Codes and cipher machines such as Type X and SIGABA may have been more effective than Enigma because Allied cryptographers were more careful than German ones. However, there was always a risk that the German cryptanalysts had begun to crack the codes, and decrypting the messages sent by those machines were also very slow. Implementing the Navajo Code Talkers made it basically impossible for the Germans to crack the code, and also expedited the process of sending and deciphering messages that greatly contributed to the Allies’ victory.

The Smithy Code: A Look Into Multiple Encryption

On Elonka’s website, there is an explanation and solution to the Smithy Code. The Smithy Code was embedded in the ruling for a plagiarism trial concerning Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. Justice Peter Smith italicized several letters which spelled out “S m i t h y c o d e J a e i e x t o s t g p s a c g r e a m q w f k a d p m q z v -” — “Smithy code” is in English, and the rest is ciphertext which evidently involves a polyalphabetic substitution cipher. According to the explanation, Smith used a series of Caesar shifts based on the letters that correspond to the numbers of the Fibonacci sequence. Usually, this would be 1-1-2-3-…, which would correspond to A-A-B-C-…. However, Smith added a twist and replaced the letter B with the letter Y. He then used a grid of the Caesar shifts and found the plaintext letter in the grid, then traced it up to the letter at the top of the column to encipher it, similar to the way one would decode a Vigenère cipher.

In class, we have discussed Caesar ciphers, polyalphabetic substitution ciphers, and the Vigenère cipher (a type of polyalphabetic cipher). The Smithy Code was an intricate interweaving of all of these methods and a method inspired by The Da Vinci Code (the Fibonacci Sequence), because of the novel’s relevance to the trial. It was a fascinating look into a method by which several ciphers can be used, and how far common knowledge and research about cryptography has come in order for these methods to be implemented.

Contextual Ethics

Ethics in times of war must be thought of differently from ethics in times of peace, however much we may want it to be otherwise. The focus of ethics during wartimes turns to utilitarianism. Utilitarianism is sacrificing the wellbeing of a few for the good of the many. It is “big-picture” thinking, striving to benefit as many people as possible, even if that means a few people must get hurt along the way.

When thought of in that context, Britain’s Admiral Hall’s decision not to tell American President Woodrow Wilson about the Zimmerman telegram makes perfect sense. If he had told President Wilson the contents of the telegram, the Germans would have been alerted to the fact that the British were able to read their messages, and would have changed their codes and created additional obstacles for Britain’s cryptanalysts, potentially costing Allied lives. The danger posed to America by Germany’s U-boat warfare, by comparison, put far less lives at risk, especially because it seemed likely that the United States would enter the war after the beginning of the U-boat attacks.

The reason Admiral Hall’s decision would seem unethical in the context of today is that the major powers of the world have not been involved in a worldwide or home-turf war in some 70 years, since the end of the Second World War. The focus of ethics has shifted from utilitarianism to a more deontological ethical viewpoint. Deontology, contrary to utilitarianism, concentrates on how ethical an action is without consideration for the consequences of the action. In this situation, it would seem Admiral Hall had a moral obligation to inform President Wilson of the Zimmerman telegram, simply because it would be “the right thing to do.” However, when thought of in the context of the First World War, Admiral Hall’s decision to bring the United States into the war in a more roundabout way seems the more logical and ethical choice.

Opposing Views on Safety

I plan to respond to the essay by Michael Morris, titled “Mining Student Data Could Save Lives.” This essay discusses the potential disasters that could be avoided if universities monitored their students’ data.

I find this essay especially compelling because of the relevant nature of its subject matter. As a college student, knowing that my university could see my internet activity at any time is a little worrying. However, the benefits of doing so make it a valid avenue to make campuses safer.

From one viewpoint, students deserve privacy. With events such as the hacking of big companies such as Ashley Madison and Sony, it wouldn’t be too difficult to hack a university’s system and have access to thousands of students’ personal information. On a smaller scale, it would be possible to target information about specific individuals and use that to blackmail or threaten them, as happened in the media when nude pictures of celebrities such as Jennifer Lawrence were released. There is a certain danger in allowing universities access to students’ personal data, and the complete ramifications cannot be predicted until it actually happens.

On the other side of the debate, using algorithms to track internet activity could be a major part of preventing violence and crime. The main example in Morris’s essay was that of a student who had bought firearms online, and may have engaged in other warning activities that could have served as red flags for those monitoring those types of activities. In these cases, it would have been immensely helpful to have a system in place that allows universities to monitor student activity.

There are many other factors to consider in this debate as well, from secrecy to censorship. Because of this, I am choosing to respond to Morris’s essay in my first paper.

Standing on the Shoulders of Giants

It is curious to think of how the world was just one hundred years ago. So many things that are now obvious were unknown or shrouded in mystery. In 1915, barely anything was known about heredity and the cellular functions that were involved in it. Now, we have mapped the entire human genome and can even change DNA. In Newton’s time, gravity was a concept that hadn’t been explored. Now, it is an obvious fact, one that forms the most basic aspect of sciences that have now advanced to ever-increasing complexity. What is gravity when compared to the Higgs boson?

In this same way, the discoveries made by cryptanalysts of centuries past have now become obvious to us. This is by no fault of theirs—without civilization’s ability to analyze statistics and linguistics and apply mathematical concepts, decrypting encrypted messages could never have been attempted.

The thing is, civilization didn’t stop there. It continued to grow and make new discoveries while standing on the foundation laid by its predecessors. Discoveries of algebraic concepts that excited prominent scholars hundreds of years ago are now taught in middle school classes to unappreciative twelve-year-olds. They are no longer new and complicated and exciting, but old news, taken for granted, never thought of unless they are used for the springboard into some novel inquiry.

Another aspect to consider is the advance of technology and information. Doing statistics by hand is a painstaking process that can now easily be bypassed by calculators and software. In addition, so many more people have access to information now than they used to, whether that be in a classroom or on the Internet. Especially when considering the Internet, where any question can be answered easily in a matter of seconds, it is not all that surprising that amateur cryptanalysts can “wing it.”

This is not to diminish the strategies implemented by older cryptanalysts. Rather, it is to show how far we have been able to come since their time because of the nature of their discoveries. As Isaac Newton said, “If I have seen further it is only by standing on the shoulders of giants.”

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