The History and Mathematics of Codes and Code Breaking

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Trusting the Trade-Off

It is important to look at surveillance in the correct way, as an inanimate idea. Surveillance is but a tool used by entities in order to collect data about whoever is being surveilled. Thus a mistrust of surveillance lies fundamentally in the mistrust of authority and the powers delegated to it. My first primary argument is the importance of a social contract. The very idea of a government in a society is a trade off, where citizens give up certain rights in exchange for security and stability provided by the government. It is necessary to give up certain rights in order to live in a society with a government. Putting aside infringement on citizens privacy, there is no denying that when it comes to purely catching illicit activity, surveillance is extremely effective. Therefore the evils of privacy infringement need to be weighed against the good given by the surveillance. When considering the internet, the idea that privacy is an expectation falls apart when under scrutiny. Considering the internet as a public exchange of ideas makes it no different from a public plaza, where a conversation does not have the same expectation of privacy that it does in someone’s house. 

My second argument is that the shortcomings of people should not be put unto the tools that they use. Fixing the government and its many problematic areas is an important problem, one which we will be solving until the end of time. Privacy abuse is the misuse of the information that is provided by surveillance. Therefore there is a large potential for abuse. However the government and law enforcement is already extremely powerful, and yet most people are okay with police officers carrying weapons, and the government controlling the military, whose resources are practically unlimited. Trusting higher authority with those tools is possible, and thus it is possible to use surveillance to benefit all.

Picture Privacy

At around the 16th minute in the podcast, Professor Bruff brings up the FaceApp. The FaceApp was a smartphone application in which users uploaded photos and the app modified them in creative ways. It was later discovered that FaceApp was taking the data of the faces and potentially storing it in some servers. With an application created abroad, naturally it drew criticism from the U.S. as a potential spying problem. This is an example of a larger problem, the misleading nature of privacy on the internet. A similar example is the Cambridge Analytica scandal in which innocent looking personality tests were used to collect data on Facebook users. The problem is that the majority of these apps are very unclear as to their privacy terms of service, and oftentimes are misleading by creating an innocent looking application while not being entirely transparent with their users about what they will do with the data that the users are supplying. Professor Gilliard then goes on to mention how he tries to avoid putting up pictures of himself on the internet. This is a completely foreign concept to anyone using social media. Be it Instagram or Snapchat, social media revolves around photographs. This has spread to internet culture, where accounts for various services oftentimes have an untrustworthy connotation if they do not have a profile picture.

Surveillance is Power

“When inmates believe they are being watched, they conform to what they believe to be the norms of the prison and the expectations of their jailors. Surveillance is a mechanism by which powerful entities assert their power over less powerful individuals.” (74)

This immediately reminds me of the panopticon, a completely surveilled prison design of Jeremy Bentham’s. Powerful individuals often assert themselves as tyrannical rulers, and in every single example, the society they create is devoid of privacy, full of spies and surveillance. Privacy is a degree of freedom that can be very detrimental. If the nature of any action is hidden from any authority, then any action could theoretically be allowed. Almost always authority is powerful for a reason, and defying outright is not an option. This means that should the subjects under the authority wish to act in defiance, they must do so in secret. In the panopticon another extremely important element of the design is the lack of communication between inmates. Extreme surveillance accomplishes this effect, as the inmates are unable to speak without being listened to and are thus unable to step outside of the norms set by the authority. In George Orwell’s 1984, the protagonist Winston lives in a dystopian future world where everyone is constantly under the watchful gaze of “Big Brother.” Above all else Winston’s very alone, and feels like he has no actual friends. The threat of punishment from authority is oftentimes more powerful than any physical restraint. The threat that someone might be watching creates enough pressure to follow the rules set out.



The NSA is okay … Technically.

The NSA seeks to act in its best interests. Therefore the release of the DES should come as no surprise to anyone. Though technically created by IBM, NSA was heavily involved in the creation process. At the center of the encryption are the substitution S-tables, the part where the NSA had the most involvement. Naturally this created suspicion that the NSA put a backdoor in the tables with which they were able to decode every message in seconds. However the NSA also intended the algorithm to be used for its own classified documents. Motivated by historical examples of supposedly perfectly secure ciphers, NSA knew that if it put in a logical caveat into the algorithm eventually it would be found. Therefore the only logical idea was to make it so that ONLY the NSA could break the cipher. One thing that the NSA had above every genius individual or organization was resources. Therefore it made the DES only solvable with brute force attacks, hoping that for the foreseeable future, only the NSA would have the necessary technology to conduct such an attack. Though potentially a moral grey area, the NSA did not do anything wrong technically, as a senate committee which investigated the project found. Making DES a government standard did not force any one business to use it. Interestingly, it seems that the NSA did not learn its lesson from all the backlash it received, as during 1987 it implemented the Capstone project which primarily created the SHA-1 hash function to use as a standard for password encryption. Though it has yet to be determined whether the NSA created a backdoor, SHA-1 is no longer considered secure, and just as the DES has been updated through a public competition.

Podcast Immersion

Vox encoding and speech compression is a common piece of technology that most people are completely unaware of. The podcast 99% invisible tells the entire story, from its inception in the form of a show act presented at a fair, to an integral part of World War II cryptography. The podcast medium plays well to this, as the narrator is able to tell a coherent story about this technology. What makes it interesting, is the examples that the studio is able to come up with. Imitating the encrypted talks between F.D.R. and Churchill while explaining each individual step plays well towards both providing a captivating story which places the listener into the middle of World War II, and also towards explaining technology that would otherwise require a diagram or a visual aid. A particular mark of the quality of the podcast is that since the subject matter deals with a recent time period, 99% are able to interview living people which were involved in the events, and sometimes they even were able to obtain recordings. However when they were unable to do so, they often supplemented with reenactments produced by the studio. This is sometimes difficult to distinguish where the actual event ends and the reenactment begins. It helps the listener to immerse themselves in the program, and makes the podcast feel less like a newscast, and more of an informative movie.

Britain’s Fallacy

The conclusion of World War I brought a sense of elation and confidence for Allies, as they brought upon the defeat of the Central Powers. Utterly convinced that the reparations burdened upon Germany would be sufficient from ever causing such blatant militarism again, the Allies embraced peace. A common phrase that was uttered to describe World War I was that it was the “war to end all wars.” The world was still reeling from the conflict but many truly believed that it was the end of large scale conflict. Publishing a full history, revealing the inner workings of the British military was an embodiment of that idea, the idealistic view that the world had indeed changed. In reality this was not the case and a blatant disregard for the rapidly militarizing Nazi Empire was one of the primary factors which led to the Second World War. The idealistic perspectives following World War 2, imagined cooperation among countries to create a peaceful era. The League of Nations is further evidence to that idea. Though idealistic, one could argue that the released knowledge spurned on the Enigma machine which led to Alan Turing’s machine which eventually became the modern computer. Additionally, it could be argued that with Hitler so paranoid of repeating the mistakes of his predecessors, a new code would have been created regardless. The release constitutes a sharp break from common cryptography practices, as the ability to break a code becomes infinitely more powerful if that ability is secret. The hope was that ciphers would never be needed again. 

The Prison Metaphor

Jeremy Bentham’s invention, the panopticon, should never have become a metaphor. The panopticon at its core remains a prison. When Jeremy Bentham introduced it, the majority of its benefits that he presented came as a direct consequence of the isolation that prisoners faced. Bentham brings up the inability of prisoners to communicate with each other and thus unable to start riots or plan future crimes. The surveillance of the tower in the middle is secondary. The idea that since the prisoners are unsure of when they are being surveilled and thus they are forced to live their lives as if they are under constant supervision, is a whole separate concept. The panopticon is a collection of three key ideas: the state of isolation, the state of constant surveillance and the stress of not knowing when surveillance is happening. It is possible to argue that surveillance is constantly happening today, however the isolation of prisoners that prevents any sort of communication and interaction with prisoners does not model our society at all. The definition of a society is a group of people living together in a community. As community is an integral aspect of human civilization, the panopticon metaphor falls apart. Additionally, the premise of anxiety is that the prisoners are fully aware of the higher power and its ability to spy on them. However in today’s society oftentimes we are unsure of the extent to which the higher power, usually the government, is able to see us. The influence of a higher authority is thus mitigated as it seems intangible, unlike the constant glare of the illuminated tower. The prisoners under total control of the higher authority do not model the hesitant balance of power between the people and the government.

Mount Everest

George Mallory was a British mountaineer who was the first person to climb Mount Everest. Famously when he was asked why he decided to climb Mount Everest he replied “Because it’s there.” The sake of discovery for the sake of discovery. Humanity is incredibly advanced and throughout the long history of civilization, countless hours have been poured into almost every task. Becoming the first person to do anything, to discover something new is a very clear and distinct motivation. Similarly, which is why people approach famously unsolved problems in mathematics. When I first discovered the 3n+1 conjecture I knew that hundreds of mathematicians which were all much more educated that I had tried it and failed. Without any hope of discovering anything new I still tried a couple of times to think about the conjecture differently simply because there is always hope. Similarly people still attempt the Beale ciphers simply because they wish to try and do something no one has done before. Another interesting motivation is the new technique needed to solve this cipher. This is analogous to the Riemann hypothesis. Many people erroneously believe that proving the hypothesis will revolutionize the world and lead to teleportation or discoveries of new technologies. The importance of the conjecture comes in making it, in fact there are many papers written which simply assume it to be true. The reason why there are still so many attempting to prove it is because after all of the discovering techniques have been tried endlessly, still the problem remains. Solving it would require a completely new technique which would in fact revolutionize at least mathematics. Similarly cryptography could change forever.

Strict or Loose Construction?

Marcus argues during class with both Charles and Mrs. Anderson about the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Though both sides in the book are represented by extreme views for the sensationalism of attempting to tell a good story, the actual debate is a valid case of differing opinions. The question of when to suspend the Bill of Rights remains contentious, however the government has made rulings in the past relating to the matter. Marcus states that the Bill of Rights is absolute, and should never be suspended. While this is a valid opinion, it does not reflect the views of the nation in “Little Brother”, nor does it reflect the views of our nation. The Supreme court has ruled that shouting “Fire” in a crowded theater, or hate speech, for example, are not protected under the first amendment, freedom of speech and expression. Though I would say that these examples are not necessarily suspending the Bill, the federal governments’ Patriot Act represents a suspension of the Bill in certain cases. The government is given wide latitude to seek out and prosecute terrorism based on a much lesser standard of truth than a court of law. Additionally, an important part of the debate is the right to privacy versus surveillance. Whether the right to privacy exists in the Bill of Rights is not debatable, there is no stated rule that creates it. The only arguments come from the 14th amendment, where Roe v. Wade was ruled based on the implied right to privacy. As part of the debate, Mrs. Anderson brings up how the constitution was made to change and adapt to the times, and that the founding fathers did not mean for it to remain immutable for years. Marcus argues the opposite, what is known as strict constructionism. Though I do not agree with how Mrs. Anderson wants to change the constitution, I would agree that it should not be interpreted literally, and that it should evolve with society. The very idea that the constitution has a built in amendments process shows that the founding fathers did not believe that they were the final say on the way this nation should be run.

Maximizing Both Security and Privacy

Morris argues that universities should mine student’s data to identify and prevent potentially threatening behaviors which could cause harm to other students of faculty. He compares data mining with a crystal ball, that universities could use to ensure the safety of those on campus. Additionally he brings up a potential objection, that FERPA could prevent this type of mining because of privacy rights and the inability to release confidential student records. To counter this he presents a case from Virginia Tech which added a clause that would make this prevention possible. Morris also brings up the data mining that cookies do for online sellers to better tailor advertising. I agree with the sentiment that Morris presents. Oftentimes we must sacrifice privacy in order to help with health and security. However, I think that his analogy of a crystal ball is a line coming from far fetched sensationalism. It isn’t the data mining itself, it’s the algorithm which interprets data and predicts future developments or makes conclusions that poses as the crystal ball. There also remains the question of how powerful these algorithms are. Predicting human behavior is difficult, and should an algorithm be wrong, a student’s life could be ruined, even though they were simply researching for their criminal psychology class. Additionally, in order to strengthen Morris’s argument I would like to bring up the impersonal aspect of this technology. Since all of these algorithms are being fed through machines, the data could be encrypted and also given to machines, so that actual humans would never see it or interpret it. That way, only machines would be running the algorithms and the only data examined would be that which poses a risk. This would help maintain privacy while increasing campus security.

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