The History and Mathematics of Codes and Code Breaking

Author: milfored

Alicia’s Definition

‘I just think it’s different. . . . I think privacy is more just you choosing what you want to keep to yourself’ says seventeen-year-old Alicia.

Now I have heard many scholars and experts try to pin a definition on privacy, but this, by far, is the best one in my opinion. Without trying to explain too much, Alicia captures the take that many people, both adults and teens, have on privacy in the context of social media.

If you choose to share something about yourself on social media, it does not necessarily mean that you do not care about privacy itself. It just might mean that whatever you shared is not worth the effort to keep private.

Because this ‘new’ definition is by a seventeen-year-old girl, many older folks (mainly parents) might not agree with it, but many of them might be surprised to find out that it is not so new. In fact, it is the same form of privacy that they grew up with.

Social media may have been non-existent, but thought process people used back then was the same: Share whatever you do not care about, and keep what you do care about to yourself. It has always been that simple (at least in modern history) and still is.

If that is the case, then maybe parents should think about lightening up and trusting Alicia as well as the rest of us teenagers.

The Full Circle of a Voder

I do not listen to podcast at all. They are just not something that I bother to make time for. However, if I had to trust one media outlet with persuading to me to do otherwise, it would be Vox. They always know how to make a story interesting, and if it is already interesting, then they make it even more interesting. This podcast of theirs — Vox Ex Machina, 99% Invisible Episode 208 — is no exception.

With an interesting topic already in their hands, Vox tells us the history of the voder, a machine that can produce synthetic voices. What I found interesting in this story is what they describe as its “full circle.” It first started out as a silly machine used for laughs; then it “enlisted” to aid the Allied efforts in World War II by encrypting voices over radio communication; and then it returned back to civilian life, helping make some of our generation’s most iconic noises and sounds. There may other pieces of technology in our culture that have a similar story, but we might not learn about them, so it is at least cool know about the voder’s story.

Now the producer did many things to turn what was already an interesting story into an even more interesting story, but what really caught my attention was the soundtrack he used and how he used it. Every different track he used throughout the podcasts engaged me in the story, but that is not all. He also made sure to apply each different track to a spot in the story where it was appropriate. Thus, he produced a story that knew how to take itself seriously and humorously at the right moments.

On a related note, I also like how the producer incorporated videos and pictures throughout the podcast. They add another layer to the podcast that makes it even more enriching for the audience.

All of this has left me with some good ideas for the podcast episode that I will produce. While maintaining good journalism, I will always make sure that the audience is engaged. This means incorporating good color schemes, music tracks that complement the tone of the story, and pictures to add that extra layer of media.

Cryptography is Made up of Two Sides — Dominate them Both!

I like to think of cryptography as a game. There are two sides, and each must play offense and defense when necessary — offense being the cryptographers and defense being the cryptanalyst. Now in terms of World War II, the Allies succeeded because they made sure to play both offense and defense while the Axis powers failed because they only played defense.

Take the British for example. As Polish cryptanalyst Rejewski pointed out, Enigma had a weakness for being repetitive, and they exploited this weakness to the point that they could begin to decipher a few messages. It only took the creation a computer that could do this continuously to finally keep up with Enigma. All the while possessing great skill at cracking codes, the British also made sure their offense was good and had devised a encryption machine that was more complex than enigma — Type X. This meant that the British had an advantage on both sides, not just one. It should also be pointed out that the British formed a large intelligence network with the rest of the Allies that eclipsed that of lonesome Germany’s. Overall, it was only a matter of time before the the Allies were going to secure victory in Europe.

However, you do not have to stop in the European front to see how important it is to dominate both sides of cryptography. Another example of equal value can be seen with the Americans and their campaign in the Pacific against Japan. Similar to the Brits, the Americans also made sure to focus attention into both their encryption efforts and their code breaking efforts. Both of these resulted in the encryption mechanism, SIGABA, also said to be more complex than Enigma, and the cracking of Purple, Japan’s encryption machine that is also said to be repetitive like Enigma. However, pay more attention to the American’s encryption efforts to see how they dominated the game of cryptography. In a change of direction, the U.S. Navy decided to incorporate the use of a minority culture’s language into their encryption efforts. This minority was the Navajo. Obscure to the rest of the world, their strange language proved to be unintelligible to the the Japanese and was the sole reason that the Americans secured many key victories across the Pacific.

What one should take away from World War II is that it is not good enough just to be an amazing cryptographer to win. One must also be both an amazing cryptographer and an amazing cryptanalyst.

An Even Mix!

With an even mix of pro-security and pro-privacy statements, this display reminds me of how half-and-half the country is on the privacy versus security debate which always intrigues me. No matter where or when the question is asked excluding the aftermaths of a few terrorist attacks, people always seem to be divided evenly between both sides. Even the majority of aftermaths of terrorist attacks after November 11, 2001 seemed to have been met with mixed responses such as the ones shown on this display.

Now something else from this display caught even more of my attention. Giving me a feeling of déjà vu, what caught my attention was Benjamin Franklin’s quote: “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.” The reason this lonesome quote stood out to me is because I have noticed that it serves as the backbone for many pro-privacy arguments including my own which I recently submitted in an essay.

However, as another classmate with the username, “BROWKM10,” has already mentioned, the context of Benjamin Franklin’s statement had nothing to do with privacy at all. If that is the case, some may question whether the quote has any relevance in a privacy versus security debate. I still say “yes, it does!” Regardless of its context, the quote has a meaning flexible enough to be applied to a 21st century debate on privacy versus security. If historians are saying how its context has been lost, then it shall stay lost because quotes are not restricted to their context.

Overall, I was a little surprised by how many people said they were willing to give up some of their private records to feel safe, but I was also pleased by how divided people were on this issue. I would rather see an even debate where I can hear a good bit of each side rather than a swayed debate where all I hear is a loud majority.

I Don’t Really Think There Was Difference

What was the difference?

There was none! The environment that Mary Queen of Scots experienced is quite the same compared to the environment leading up to the development of the Vigenère cipher. In fact, it even states in the book that Vigenère’s publication of Traicté des chiffres happened “ironically… [in] the same year that Thomas Phelippes was breaking the cipher of Mary Queen of Scots.”

Even Mary herself was aware of how insecure the code was. It was just that (1) she could not come up with a better method of encryption and (2) she never questioned if her beloved messenger was a double-agent for Thomas Phelippes which he in fact was.

All of this just goes to show how much of an edge the cryptanalyst had over the cryptographers. No matter how much variation the cryptographers tried to invest into their monoalphabetic, the cryptanalyst could break them easily with one tool — frequency analysis.

However, this was only until Vigenère took the works of three other men to create a cipher that gave the edge back to cryptographers. With it, cryptanalyst would be left to sit hunch-back over their desk for years. It is only a shame however that his amazing cipher would not be appreciated until another two hundred years.

“Hooded Gas Mask” — Just Another Google Search

If my reaction to Chapter Four could be summarized in three words, they would be “hooded”, “gas,” and “mask.”

Separated, those are just three innocent words, but if you put them side by side, suspicion would loom over your head as if you were its shadow. “Suspicion… by who” you may be wondering. Well, in my case, it could be the suspicion of those who monitor the internet here at Vanderbilt University, and in a day and age of heightened concern over public safety, that is not the kind of attention you want directed at you.

You see, although those three words can be read back in Chapter Three, it did not peak my curiosity to google them until I had reached Chapter Four. There I was at 2:00 A.M. on a Friday morning looking up images of hooded gas mask — not necessarily something your average college student would need. To me, I was merely being curious, but somebody else may have thought otherwise; they may have thought I was planning to recreate the tragedy that happened at Virginia Tech several years ago.

Once I became self-aware of how weird it was for me to be googling “hooded gas mask,” I closed all my tabs, deleted my history, and reverted back to my daily browsing of Reddit.

Unfortunately, Marcus did not have this opportunity, for he was caught “at the wrong place at the wrong time.” Trapped on the scene of America’s worst terrorist attack while unrelatedly being a tech-wiz as well, Marcus was detained by Homeland Security for being a possible threat to the U.S. After an uncomfortable ride by truck and boat, he and his friends were taken to an isolated location. There, he was asked to unlock all of his gadgets and logins, one by one — each unlocked gadget or login granting him an additional privilege. First, he was asked to unlock his phone to which he wanted to say “no,” but he eventually complied. The next day,  he was asked to unlock his email to which he complied without resistance. Then the day after that, he signed some papers (hesitantly) and was released from custody, but his interrogator made it clear that Homeland Security would continue to watch him.

Throughout just a few days,  Marcus endured a terrible scrutiny of his entire life — all because he was “at the wrong place at the wrong time.” If Vanderbilt had just endured a similar tragedy that the U.S. did in this book, would I be subjected to a similar treatment just for looking up “hooded gas mask” out of curiosity? The thought is unnerving.

I have always been a guy to say that we should put security over privacy without question but not after finishing this chapter and certainly not after the finishing book.

Is Privacy Worth It?

“But if colleges use the crystal ball that’s available to them, they will surely come much closer to that goal.”

Throughout the article, “Mining Student Data Could Save Lives,” Michael Morris, the author, made many arguments, but his central argument was that college campuses should in fact mine their students’ data. That is the “crystal ball” that he says is available to them while the “goal” he mentions is to stop large acts of campus violence.

Now Morris does in fact make the argument that mining students’ data could help college campuses prevent large acts of violence, but that is only meant to draw attention to the main issue which is the fact that many college campuses are actually reluctant to mine their students’ data for various reasons. That is where Morris makes his central argument being that college campuses should in fact mine their students’ data. He addresses the counter-argument that privacy is in question but rebuts it by explaining that college campuses use algorithms that only extract “usable” data. He addresses another counter-argument that mining students’ data may be  met with the backlash of a policy breach but rebuts it as well by explaining that the Department of Education revised the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (Ferpa) where colleges would have more access to the information of students who raise serious concern.

I, for one, agree with Morris’s argument. As he himself has already stated, we as a society have been waiving our online privacy for our increasing indulgence in online services over the past decade now, and we cannot simply just go back to the way things were. To me, it would be outrageous having to mourn the death of a fellow classmate while knowing it could have been prevented by the college campus. At some point we just have to take a deep breath and decide what is more important — making sure that my routine life as a college student is kept private or stopping the next “School-Shooting” headline.

…How Singh Makes Cryptography Interesting

Cryptography — we have seen it everywhere, from the movie screens to the morning news. In fact, so much so that you might even begin to get tired of hearing about it. You may just start to associate it with a couple of things that are easy to remember like The Imitation Games or the NSA (National Security Agency), but that right there is the problem: Mary Queen of Scots, Julius Caesar, Elizabeth I, Xerxes — do these names sound familiar when you think about cryptography? Probably not. That is why Singh chooses to introduce them in Chapter 1.

Upon opening the book to the first page, you, the reader, are immediately introduced to a grim scenario where Mary Queen of Scots is standing trial for a plot to assassinate Elizabeth I. Only one thing remains in question: the contents of an encrypted message that Mary sent to her alleged conspirators. Singh wastes no time in telling you that the letter actually does incriminate her of the crime, but now you are left wondering whether Elizabeth’s court will actually break the encryption. Immediately, your attention shifts from the contents of the letter to the cryptography around it and thus an excitement is born.

If Singh had chosen to start his book off in a later time with more classical examples of cryptography, the reader would not be as captivated as they are by the examples and times his book starts off with now.

It is this excitement for cryptography  that most forms of media fail to elicit out of people, yet Singh manages to do so within the first, two pages a book. That excitement eventually fuels more curiosity as the reader realizes that they have only read about the fundamentals — substitution and transposition — which beckons the question, “what else is there to learn?”

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