The History and Mathematics of Codes and Code Breaking

Author: Daniel Kim

The Cryptography Question of our Time: Surveillance vs. Privacy

Yes, I did in fact take the title from the syllabus.

It is one of the most consequential arguments of the modern world and especially in this country. Towards the end of chapter three and into chapter four of Cory Doctorow’s novel, Little Brother, Marcus, the main protagonist of the story, reveals to the reader that he feels very strongly about his privacy. At this point in the novel, Marcus has been detained by the Department of Homeland Security and is being interrogated by the “severe haircut lady”. She demands that Marcus unlock his phone, to which Marcus responds, “I’ve got the right to my privacy” (49). He makes it very clear that his privacy is of utmost importance to him even despite constant threats and continual interrogations.

Marcus goes on to explain the importance of privacy in his own life and how having even just a little part of his life completely hidden is essential for every person. He uses the analogy of privately going to the bathroom or privately being naked as a way to show that having things only for yourself is actually in fact healthy. The culmination of his argument is this: “It’s not about doing something shameful. It’s about doing something private. It’s about your life belonging to you” (57).

This particular passage stuck with me because of its particular relevance, especially in this course. While many believe in giving up some privacy in exchange for security, Marcus presents the flip side of the conversation and is adamant about making sure his security is his own, something that every human being deserves as a basic right. And while I may not entirely agree with his argument, it gives light to what other people have concerns in regards to the problem at hand.

Drawing a Fine Line between Safety and Privacy

Ever since America was hit in the face with the realities of international and domestic terrorism starting with the tragic morning in September of 2001 or even as far back as Columbine in 1996, our country has had a skeptical outlook on the privacy and safety of our citizens and our country as a whole. Although everyone can agree that safety is one of our utmost priorities, many individuals become defensive when personal benefits and freedoms are at stake. Michael Morris is confident that while we continue to tug back and forth at where exactly the line should be drawn, that college campuses should take full advantage of what they have in hand to keep their students safe.

College campuses have the ability to use student data from their systems to track potential threats, particularly on-campus violence attacks and threats. Morris calls it the “crystal ball”, which colleges can use to work towards campus safety in general. Morris goes on to talk about various points that require discussion, primarily the distinction between intent of safety and intrusion and all the sub-points that fall under that umbrella. In the past years, the Department of Education in cooperation with several universities has clarified policies such as Ferpa to give  universities more leverage when they feel they need to act on situations that cause any concern or threat.

Personally, I fully agree with Morris’s argument primarily because as a college student in an age where society has become numbed to constant breaking news of shootings and acts of domestic terrorism, some action should be taken even if there is controversy and conflict about it. To ensure that our culture does not crumble into pieces, there should and must be an immediate action plan that allows campuses to do what they can in their power to provide safety for all their students. From there, we have the ability to build a new culture that works towards safety among all our citizens.

How All Things Advance and Progress

While it can be determined that the evolution of cryptography and cryptanalysis is a result of a high level of academic and scholarly progression, the ability to analyze codes and ciphers does not necessarily have to come from that level of scholarship. In fact, amateur cryptanalysts are fully capable of analyzing and deciphering codes without much experience or training. It is fully possible that any normal person is able to solve these simple codes through trial and error.

In order to explain why the development of frequency analysis was so complicated and challenging and why in contrast, solving these substitution ciphers are seemingly so easy and simple, I want to use a simple example, or in fact any invention that we use practically today. One of the earliest and most profound inventions in human history is the wheel. The wheel took about 300 years to develop, yet today it is one of the simplest mechanisms that all of humanity understands. Similarly, Thomas Edison’s invention of the lightbulb took one thousand attempts to master, yet today it is manufactured at an insane rate along with thousands of other inventions that probably took weeks, months, and even years to develop. In just the same manner, the people that developed frequency analysis may have spent hours and days trying to come up with the essence of frequency analysis, yet those that practice today have it down with ease due to the length of time for which it has existed.

Throughout time since the creation of frequency analysis, the human race has advanced in knowledge and logic and has since made the profound the simple. For this reason, even the most basic and amateur cryptanalyst has the ability to effectively decipher a substitution cipher “on their own”.

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