The History and Mathematics of Codes and Code Breaking

Author: mohitesj

Young, Dumb, But Not Scum

One of the recurring themes of Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother is the trade-off between privacy and security. In the wake of a devastating terror attack, the city of San Francisco is effectively transformed into a police state, with the each person being monitored day in and day out. Marcus, the protagonist, and his fellow youth ultimately grow disillusioned with this kind of treatment, going as far as to proclaim not to trust anyone over 25 or 30, as the older generation seems to condone and even accept this new way of life.

This dynamic of young versus old paralleling the dynamic of privacy versus security is indicative of another kind of societal dynamic: idealism versus pragmatism. For Marcus, Jolu, and Ange, the right to privacy is more than merely hiding information: it’s peace of mind, the confidence that deeply personal isn’t subject to scrutiny by a third party, that one’s suspect yet benign information is hidden from prying eyes. However, the government views the safety blanket of privacy in a different light: as a cloak to mask malicious and malevolent intent. For the government, the idea of protecting the citizenry demands the intrusion of privacy, and those in power subscribe to such an ideology.

While I do believe the lengths to which the government in Little Brother prove to be quite extreme, for the government to facilitate the protection of the people, a degree of invasion of privacy is to be expected. In that sense, the government of Little Brother, with its all seeing eye, is caught in a double-bind. One one hand, as a government, the burden of protecting the citizenry falls on its shoulders. Likewise, in pursuit of these goals, it must also ensure that justice is delivered appropriately, minimizing false positives to the best of their ability. Under this framework, the government of Little Brother still proves indefensible in its blanket prosecutions, but displays a nuance of the debate often ignored. While those above 25 or 30 may seem to condone an severe violation of the right to privacy, many understand that such an action is the result of a government caught in a so-win situation, choosing the wisdom of pragmatism over the hope of idealism.

The Modern Dichotomy: Protection or Privacy

Michael Morris’ piece Mining Student Data Could Save Lives presents the argument that universities in the United States have the technological capabilities to monitor their student bodies and act upon any suspect behaviors they may detect. Such a breach of privacy would better enable these institutions to facilitate the safety of their students, but at the trade-off of each individual’s privacy. While most of the piece is an objective analysis of the ways in which universities could employ data mining technology, he does eventually advocate for a position, saying that the American university should make use of their “crystal ball” to better prevent violent incidents on campus. I agree with this sentiment, given the current climate of gun violence within this country. Time and time again, it has been proven that the antiquated methodologies of yesteryear are insufficient to prevent the heinous acts like those perpetrated at Virginia Tech from happening again. Too often is the response to these atrocities to “send our thoughts and prayers” and simply wait with bated breath for the next one down the road. As such, the only effective system of preventing mass shootings and other premeditated violent acts is the one Morris describes: the use of a data mining algorithm to analyze suspicious behaviors and activities as they occur in real time, therefore giving law enforcement the time to respond. While this may constitute a breach in the fundamental privacy afforded to all Americans by the Constitution, the frequency and efficiency with which these acts are being carried out with forces us to reexamine the intrinsic worth of privacy within society. However, given recent events, it seems that the answer is clear: university campuses have a moral obligation to use the data they have access to to adequately facilitate the protection of their student bodies, even if that demands some intrusions on their digital privacy.

The Ubiquity of Cryptography

In the opening pages of the Simon Singh’s The Code Book, he asserts that cryptanalysis – the science of de-encrypting encrypted messages and text – was only possible once the upper echelons of society had reached a sufficient level of mastery in mathematics, statistics, and linguistics. This argument is predicated on the idea that the very practice of encryption in and of itself was fairly new; an example of the rudimentary nature of the practice is the frequent use of simple substitution and shift ciphers, both of which intrinsically limit the number of possible permutations of the encrypted message i.e. the 25 possibilities for a shift cipher. In that sense, the encryption techniques of yesteryear were on the bleeding edge of espionage, and thus demanded the most qualified minds of the time to ponder and decipher them.

However, this ultimately begs the question of how modernity has rendered some of the most complex ciphers of the past obsolete, mere puzzles to occupy one’s time on a long flight or car ride; even a grade-school child could decode a simple shift cipher in a reasonable amount of time.

The reason for this paradigm shift is two-fold. Firstly, modern media is inundated and saturated with puzzles for people to solve. The advent of technology has turned codebreaking into a game, a passtime, one that millions upon millions of people enjoy on a day-to-day basis. Some of the highest grossing apps on both iTunes and Google Play in recent years have involved unscrambling words or connecting certain images to keywords. Altogether, everyone from children to adults are nigh constantly training themselves in rudimentary codebreaking, unconsciously creating heuristics and algorithms to solve any other such puzzles that may come their way. In that sense, amateur codebreakers have, unknowingly or not, likely already been through an intensive training program in cryptanalysis.

Secondly, for codes that escape the powers of the human mind, there exists the accessibility of the modern computer. With billions upon billions transistors available to anyone with the monetary capital, the bulk of the mathematical and statistical expertise has been outsourced to the raw computing power of the computer. Able to test millions of cases in the fraction of a second, amateur codebreakers with a powerful enough processor and a bit of creativity are able to decode messages that would have taken the scholars of the past days or weeks in a matter of minutes.

Technology and the ubiquity of cryptography has thus made cryptanalysis into a hobby of sorts, turning a tool of high stakes espionage into a low stakes passtime.

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