The History and Mathematics of Codes and Code Breaking

Author: khanmm

Number Stations

The 97th episode of 99% invisible was particularly interesting because of the way the way it was produced. Instead of making it a 20-minute voice over of just the narrator speaking, he added sound effects and background audio that were very relevant to the theme and the ambience of the podcast. Moreover, the actual content was presented in a very intriguing way. It was meant for an audience that had little to no knowledge of the topic and everything was presented in a rather ‘accessible’ way without the use of technical lingo. The podcast gave me quite some inspiration for my own project. I plan to make my podcast about one of the popular cryptocurrencies, as this is not only a very highly interesting topic related to cryptography but also one that is very frequently discussed due to the booming bit-coin culture. From this podcast and other one that I have listened to, it seems like the production and content are almost equally important in how much the podcast can keep the captivate the person listening, which is why I will make sure I incorporate some of the techniques that the podcast used, e.g. the actual radio transmissions playing in the background during the podcast.

The Great Debate: Privacy vs. Security


The responses on the display varied from milder ones like “some privacy” and “as much as necessary” to stronger ones like “give up privacy for security”. This sort of a spectrum of responses is typically to be expected when it comes to this debate, since the notion of security and surveillance have always been associated with authoritarianism and intrusion, leaving people confused and having them left with the belief that surveillance will always have a negative connotation to it.

The cons of giving weightage to security and surveillance over privacy are brought to light much more often than the pros are; it isn’t fair to always give a biased perspective when it comes to the which one out of the two is more important. Therefore the public fears this “Big Brother” dystopia where nothing is free from the government’s eye. Frankly speaking, people think too highly of how important their ‘private’ information really is; if the government was to make a highly advanced machine to bypass encryption, they would not use it to read my personal emails or my utterly trivial text messages, instead they would much rather use it to track down malicious plans sent between terrorists via highly encrypted online messages. The key point is to realize that eventually the end goal of surveillance and security measures are for our own good and certainly not primarily for hijacking for information. The numerous instances where lives have been saved solely because of surveillance vouch for this statement.

Why do we even need privacy?


Throughout the novel “Little Brother”, the author Cory Doctorow touches on quite a number of intriguing themes and ideas. In Chapter 4, the protagonist is asked to unlock his phone, but he refuses to do so, not because he is hiding something illegal or potentially incriminating, but simply because he thinks that some things (like his phone’s private data) should be seen by him only - no one else. “The truth is that I had everything to hide, and nothing.”, he aptly says.

I found this to be a really interesting idea in the book because it dealt with the question of why one desires privacy in the first place. If there isn’t anything essentially ‘wrong’ about the things we keep private, be it family photos or personal messages conversations, then why do we shudder at the idea of someone else having access to them. This is essentially the dilemma the protagonist faces when he is asked to unlock his phone. He hadn’t done anything illegal, but letting the people from Homeland Security invade the bastion of his private life (i.e. his mobile device) just didn’t feel right. The author then writes about an analogy comparing informational privacy to nudity – there’s nothing deviant with the idea of being nude, everyone does it, but being naked in front on an audience would certainly be considered rather ‘weird’ and awry - no matter how fundamentally normal it is. Some information, regardless of how innocuous it may be, is to be known only by the person that it belongs to. Perhaps, this conclusion is perfectly articulated with the quote, “There's something really liberating about having some corner of your life that's yours, that no one gets to see except you.”


Protection over privacy?

In the essay “Mining Student Data Could Save Lives”, Morris advocates data-mining – the intensive practice of algorithm-based computer programs monitoring data and looking for potentially awry or suspicious patterns during information exchange.

I stand by the author’s point of view, as I believe further mitigating the chances of horrendous acts of terrorism (like some of the clearly preventable ones we’ve seen in the past) taking place and subsequently saving lives is much a graver issue at hand than someone’s mere online privacy protection.

With the internet serving as practically a marketplace where sellers and buyers interact, the former party is always feeding on information from consumers, be it product preferences, shopping records or even just a customer’s browsing history. The same degree of privacy intrusion could be utilized for security purposes to study data exchange on networks and look for potential red flags – an example of one such event could be an online chat between two friends discussi­­ng the illegal purchase of a semi-automatic rifle. Perhaps, key loggers or other similar recording software could look for certain keystrokes and key phrases that alert specialists to intrude that network. In my opinion, this level of surveillance is necessary, as long as the power to monitor data is only limited to a few, responsible hands, so peoples’ privacy could not be misused by other people.

Respecting privacy is important, but if that cloak of secrecy is so thick that it gives someone the power to perform malicious, behind-the-door acts, without anyone finding out, then a check and balance is absolutely crucial.







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