The History and Mathematics of Codes and Code Breaking

Author: Jerry

Should We Mine Students’ Data?

In his essay entitled “Mining Student Data Could Save Lives”, Michael Morris argues that schools should surveil the online activities of their students in order to  predict and prevent acts of violence before they occur. Because all network traffic goes through the school’s systems, the IT department in a school can monitor the online behavior of any student, which certainly has the potential to help administrators watch for behavior indicative of intent to act, as well as identify at-risk individuals who managed to fly under the radar before. Morris argues that despite the intrusion of privacy, the monitoring system should be implemented because of its potential to prevent crime. Furthermore, he justifies the lack of privacy by arguing that individuals willingly give up personal information on social media and that companies already collect data for marketing purposes.

Although I do agree with the premise of doing whatever possible to save lives, I don’t agree with the blanket surveillance that Morris seeming to be advocating for. Ignoring the violations of privacy, I don’t believe that looking for patterns in online behavior is an efficient method of determining risk. There are bound to be many false positives from students who don’t actually pose any risk that would waste the school’s resources while they investigate, or worse, students who have malicious intent but don’t exhibit any observable patterns online would completely fly under the radar. In a similar situation, the Patriot Act was passed after 9/11 which allowed public surveillance with the goal to prevent acts of terrorism. However, out of all of the criminal referrals that resulted from investigations, none of them were for terrorism. Acts of terror obviously still occur in the country despite the FBI’s resources, which leads me to question the effectiveness if implemented by a school system. I believe that a more effective method would be targeted investigations of online behavior based on tips from people, which would allow schools to focus their resources in a more efficient manner.

Different Applications of Cryptography Over Time

The only records we have of cryptography used in the past come from people with the resources and technical skills to encrypt and decrypt messages, whether they were World War II spies, Arab scholars, or Greek military leaders. Although not all of the encryption methods mentioned by Singh in Chapter 1 required exceptional resources (the Spartan scytale method used only a staff and parchment), they all required an understanding of the concept of encryption, which was a largely unused technique prior to the development of each cultures’ breakthrough cryptography methods. Additionally, it’s a reasonable assumption that cryptographers would have wanted to keep their methods secret from the general public, as knowledge of the code would have weakened the encryption. Therefore, I believe that the reason so few records of cryptography exist outside of well-resourced people is because they closely guarded the secrets to their specific codes after development, which, once revealed, often turned out to be simple and did not require exceptional resources.

However, this only applies to encryption and the building of ciphers. The techniques the Arabs developed for the decryption of substitution ciphers required extensive knowledge on linguistics and math, as frequency analysis only works if the cryptanalyst is familiar with the mechanics of a language.

Over time, techniques for encryption and decryption have been constantly improved in an arms race to create more secure codes and ways to break them. Nowadays, the most secure encryptions are created using supercomputers and unique encryption keys, which arguably requires more exceptional resources than simply deciding on a certain substitution cipher. However, the most significant difference between cryptography now and then is that very secure encryption is available to the general public, while people in the past who weren’t involved in the encryption and decryption process had very limited access to effective cryptography. Although only the developers of specific encryptions know the specific mechanics, they are made available for anyone to use.


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