The History and Mathematics of Codes and Code Breaking

Author: Safwaan

Becoming public to become private

“Much to her frustration, she finds that sharing at least a little bit affords her more privacy than sharing nothing at all.” (p. 74) This statement by Taylor, in Boyd’s book It’s Complicated is a true reflection of the world we live in. We live in the 21st century and due to ever-advancing technology, it has become easier and easier to exchange information. This information age that we live has meant that sharing information has become the norm and any deviation from this norm sticks out like a sore thumb — or as Dr. Bruff would call it, a lead-lined coffin. So, when anyone, like Taylor, chooses not to share they immediately draw attention – the exact opposite of the what they were trying to achieve in the first place.

Boyd says that the thought process of Taylor as well as many other teens of “focusing on what to keep private rather than what to publicize” (p.77) is a difficult concept for adults to grasp. Boyd seems there are only two groups of people in this battle of privacy, parents and teens. The actual groups that Boyd should discuss are those that have been able to adapt to the information age and those who haven’t. While there is a correlation between being an adult and not understanding the above statement, there are many adults who do understand the nuances of privacy today, as we can see from the multitude of adult vloggers that publicize their lives. The reason that Boyd may think that the two distinct groups are teens and adults is because most teens have not known a world other than the information age and so they have been forced into adapting how they keep their lives private. It can also be argued that Boyd does, in fact, know that there are teens who don’t understand privacy in the 21st century as well as adults who do understand it but she just chooses not to in order to make her book more controversial or in order to widen the rift between parents and teens. Whatever the case may be, there is one thing to remember. There are always two groups, those who can adapt to the ever-changing world around them and those who do not, and consequently are left scratching their heads, wondering why things aren’t as good as they were “back in their day” and why the “new generation is the worst generation ever”.


Boyd, D. (2015). It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Tell me a story

The Memory Palace’s blog Greenway Girls in centered around the life of Rose Greenway and her mother also Rose Greenway. Interestingly, the main character in the story was the daughter, who actually didn’t have much to do with ciphers bar her 8-month stint in prison with her mother. The way the story was told leaves the listener always waiting for the shift in dynamic of the story, the pivotal moment where she contributes to cryptography in a meaningful way. However, this never comes. The author’s deliberate choice in doing this allows the listener to stay absorbed in the story, wanting more. This story, unlike almost every story ever written, this story doesn’t contain a satisfying ending in which there is a resolution. The author, however, just questions possible outcomes, allowing the listeners to speculate and create their own endings. In addition to the lack of information provided by the author, the author doesn’t provide many visual aids or embedded pieces of information within the page of the podcast. This may have been done to add to the feeling of mystery and lack of information, leaving the listener even more puzzled than before.

In terms of the author’s style of narration it very much reminded me of both Winston Churchill and Barack Obama’s speaking styles. His slow narration, with seemingly deliberate word choice, has a somewhat trancelike effect on the listener. When this is coupled with frequent, short pauses, it builds suspense in the audience, leaving them grasping for more. He also uses very descriptive yet simple language allowing the listener to envisage the story as it unfolds which is a critical component for storytelling in any form.

Using the author’s style as a guide, I may experiment with speaking slowly, emphasizing specific words including the use of pauses to aid the delivery of my podcast. I will definitely tell a story in my podcast as it is the primary way we communicate as humans, and people are far more likely to recall events in the form of a story than in any other way. With regards to topic, the mystery of unsolved or unknown portions of history of cryptography seems to be very enticing and so I may focus my podcast around that.

Why did the Allies succeed in cracking the Enigma?

While most people only credit Alan Turing for cracking of the Enigma, it is important to recognize the critical role that Marian Rejewski in paving the way for the Allies’ success.

In the early days of the war, Rejewski along with the Polish Cipher Bureau were able to identify that each letter in the ciphertext was linked to a chain of letters, thus allowing them to deduce that a relationship lied between the letters. This discovery removed the mystery surrounding the aptly named Enigma as they could now discern a pattern. If a pattern is present, then it can be concluded that there was a process taken to produce that which also means that, armed with logic and a lot of hard work, the steps in that process can be deduced. Had Rejewski not made this discovery, it can be argued that Turing would never have been able to crack the Enigma as it gave him a direction to pursue and a starting position of where to do that from.

In addition to this, Rejewski’s creation of the first bomba allowed Turing to understand the importance of mechanizing the cryptanalysis of the Enigma. By using a computer to solve the Enigma, it allowed the Allies to be more efficient. And so, when Turing was finally able to crack the Enigma, due to the time saved, the information deciphered was still useful and so they were able to anticipate and prepare for Germany’s attacks.

Although Singh argues that German overconfidence is the primary reason that the Allies were able to crack the Enigma, the principal reason for the Allies success was because of Rejewski. His creativity and innovative thinking was the breakthrough that allowed the Allies to ultimately break the Enigma.

What would you give up to feel safer?

What would you give up to feel safer?

If it were possible, people should give up the existence of the United States. The US has been at war for 214 years out of a possible 235 years since its inception. (Donias, 2011). During this time, the US has been the cause of many atrocities abroad. For example, in more recent years, the wars in Afghanistan and Syria, which have caused the death of many innocent civilians. Effectively, by dissolving the US, we will decrease global terrorism immensely and thus, humanity as a whole will feel safer.

A map of nations when asked the question “Which country is the largest threat to world peace?”.

While the Newseum poses the question in the context of terror, privacy, and security, framing it in this way implies that the US and its residents are unsafe and at risk of dying at any moment from an act of terror. This is false. In reality, the chances of dying due to a terrorist attack are 1 in 45, 808. (Gould, D. M., 2017). The question that should be asked is actually, why do US residents feel so unsafe?

The answer is rooted in the original question. The government has used the media to brainwash its citizens through sensationalized news, leading them to believe that the US is always at risk from an impending attack. As a result of this, the government can influence its citizens to “give up” their rights in order to feel safer. The government can then slowly take away its citizen’s basic rights to things such as privacy and gun control, which will eventually culminate with their citizens being left with no freedom at all. As a result of this, the government will have ultimate power over their citizens, which was their goal from the start.

So, what people give up to feel safer? Nothing.




Gould, D. M. (2017, January 31). How likely are foreign terrorists to kill Americans? The odds may surprise you. Retrieved September 27, 2017, from

Danios. (n.d.). America Has Been At War 93% of the Time – 222 Out of 239 Years – Since 1776. Retrieved September 27, 2017, from

A map of nations when asked the question “Which country is the largest threat to world peace?”, in 2013 [X-post from /r/europe] [1920×1080] • r/MapPorn. (n.d.). Retrieved September 27, 2017, from

Human Nature versus Cryptography

Do you know how many people think they are smarter than everyone else?
94%. — Or at least this was the case in 1977, where professors said they were above average in relation to their peers.

When we rate others, we recognize the circumstances and characteristics that govern other people’s actions but when we think of ourselves, we overestimate our ability to do things. This is called the optimism bias and could be the main reason why people still continue to try to break the Beale Ciphers even though thousands of expert cryptanalysts have tried and unsurprisingly, failed to do so. This is because we think we are ‘not like everyone else’ and are somehow unconstrained by the same factors which affect other people’s realities. This is obviously false because we are humans, just like everyone else. Another innately human attribute, as well as the optimism bias, is the quest for everlasting life.

While many people throughout history have not been able to find the special elixir, also known as the fountain of youth, we can live on past our death in other ways. We can do this in the same way that Jesus, MLK or more aptly, Beale did – by changing history. And in effect, we will become immortal. And what better way to become immortal than to break an incredibly difficult, some say impossible, cipher that may have a prize of a cool $42 million?

There are a variety of reasons why we would try to break a seemingly unbreakable cipher, and most of them are due to our very nature as human beings. Whether it be our optimism bias, our longing for immortality, or even our curiosity, these are innate qualities and so, I would not be surprised if 100 years from now people still continue to attempt to solve the Beale Ciphers.

Reference: 2013. Everyone thinks they are above average. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 19 September 2017].

The Paradox

In Doctorow’s Little Brother, Marcus Yallow is a young boy who is falsely accused and interrogated on the grounds of being a terrorist. He decides to wage war against the DHS, the organization that kidnapped him, by creating more instances of suspicious behavior in order to make their security systems seem wildly inaccurate. He explains it by saying, “the more people [the security system] catches, the more it gets brittle. If it catches too many people, it dies”. He uses the paradox of the false positive to help him achieve this.

So, what is the paradox of the false positive? Well, let’s say 1 in every 100,000 college students commits suicide and universities have a system that can predict these tragic events 99% of the time based on the student’s web behavior. At first glance this seems pretty accurate, right? Wrong. This means that for every 100,000 students, 1% of students flags up on the system. 1% of 100,000 is 1,000 students. That is way larger than the actual number of students who commit suicide. Therefore, only if only 1 of these 1,000 students commit suicide, that’s an inaccuracy of 99.9%. This is known as the paradox of the false positive.

When reading Yallow’s explanation of this paradox it caught my eye. I found it very interesting because it highlights just how easy it can be for data to be manipulated in many different ways in order to portray a certain story. For example, a test for XYZ disease could be 99% accurate, however, it doesn’t paint the whole picture of how reliable the actual product is. This could lead to consumers who falsely tested positive for the disease to not only worry but also pay a money for medication that they don’t necessarily need. This can apply to many other products and services as well, and so it has made think twice before blindingly accepting data.

Mining data could cause more harm than good

Michael Morris has written an article arguing that ‘Mining student data could save lives’ for The Chronicle. Morris thinks that places of higher education should use the data they gather about their students from their servers to spot certain behavioral patterns or “warning signs” that could lead to certain situations such as terrorist attacks. He argues that the number of people killed will decrease and that this is a justification for making data public over keeping it private. I disagree with the author’s thesis because I believe that even though “data mining could save lives” it will actually cause more problems than it solves.

Once we start giving up our right to privacy of information we begin to lose track of where we draw the line between whether something should be kept private or made public. For example, in the San Bernardino shootings where Apple refused to allow the government access to the shooter’s phone. Had Apple conceded to the government’s wishes then not only does it undermine our basic human rights as citizens to privacy but also it gives the impression that any organization can gain access to any information whenever they want it in the name of security. Once we start exchanging our freedom (of privacy) for safety then these organizations, in this case universities, then this can lead to universities and other organizations requesting and compiling more data from us which just makes the term “privacy” obsolete. This huge compilation of data may not only be available to the organizations themselves but to other people with malicious intent too.

If every student agreed to let their data be used by the university or college that only creates another problem which is making sure that all that information is kept safe and secure. If a university collects data from students and this information isn’t protected well enough, thousands of people’s names, financial information, phone numbers, and other things will be available for anyone to get access to. This happened recently at Michigan State University which then lead to the administrative staff paying a ransom of $15,000 for the hackers to stop. This attack, although small, clearly shows how mining student data can make more people susceptible to crimes than the amount of lives that it could potentially save.

To conclude, while I agree that Morris’ argument that data mining could save lives, I do think the implications of mining such data not only puts more people at risk to a different variety of crimes but also, creates a gray area of what information we can actually keep private, if there is any.

A false sense of security

In Chapter 1 of Singh’s The Code Book, he states that “The cipher of Mary Queen of Scots clearly demonstrates that a weak cipher can be worse than no cipher at all”. Singh means that sometimes having a layer of security can be more detrimental than having none at all because it gives the sender and receiver a false sense of security.

If the sender and receiver are under a false sense of security due to their encryption, they are under the assumption that if it is intercepted it will not be deciphered. Thus, they may be think it is fine to make their intentions clear in the passage, or even worse, give details of other unnecessary information. However, this provides incriminating evidence in ‘black and white’ — literally. This is demonstrated by Babington’s ease in providing details of the plot to Queen Elizabeth as well as providing the names of his co-conspirators. However, if there was no encryption, both sender and receiver would be more inclined to make sure the message didn’t contain any information that could incriminate them as well as taking further measures to ensure that the message doesn’t get into the hands of the enemy, unlike Babington’s trust of Gifford, who was acting as a double agent. Singh also implies that people who, like Babington, tried to keep their messages safe through ciphers often overestimated the strength of their ciphers. This often lead to an incorrect feeling security which in turn ended badly, and in some cases tragically.

To conclude, looking back at the tragic story of Queen Mary, Singh suggests that even though you may encipher your text, you should not feel overly comfortable or safe. Rather, you should err on the side of caution, both in the delivery and in the content of the message that has been encrypted.

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