The History and Mathematics of Codes and Code Breaking

Author: neuhofc


Snowden comments on the mass data breach in prison phone calls.

An anonymous hacker leaked material that implicates Securus in the violation of constitutional rights of inmates. Over 70 million conversations, some of which were between inmates and lawyers, were collected by Securus, the company which is in charge of phone services in prisons and jails. This proves that Securus could possibly be violating client-attorney privilege.

This parallels Snowden’s actions with the NSA as an individual is exposing a governmental flaw that could be infringing upon rights and breaching citizens’ security. He undoubtedly supports this #hactivism as it reveals otherwise unknown and unattainable information to the public eye. This leaves us asking the question – security or privacy?

Written by: CN, CG

A New Perspective on Privacy

“Instead of signaling the end of privacy as we know it, teens’ engagement with social media highlights the complex interplay between privacy and publicity in the networked world we all live in now.” (boyd, 57)

Growing up in a world full of social media, I’ve become used to the idea of a thousand of my “friends” on Facebook seeing every photo I post. However, whenever I add a new picture or update my status, the vast number of people seeing what I have decided to publish is one of the last thoughts on my mind. I believe that social media has somewhat numbed me to the effects of what I post as the access to my information is instantly shared with those following me on social media, thus giving them complete freedom to use this knowledge however they like.

In boyd’s book It’s Complicated, she addresses the relationship between privacy and social media as teens today continue to make more and more aspects of their lives public. While past generations often lived in complete privacy, teens have become used to sharing most of their lives with the world.

But even though fewer aspects of our lives remain private, this does not mean that the concept of privacy has disappeared altogether. Instead, I believe that what we truly wish to remain private often does, as teens understand the drastic consequences social media often brings. Once a photo or text is shared, the sender automatically surrenders its privacy. Because social media gives people the access to publicize everything at their disposal, teens have therefore adjusted to a new perspective of privacy in which it is often only their most valued information that remains completely confidential.

Justified Paranoia

When reading Little Brother, the passage that really stuck out to me was after Marcus’s kidnapping when he initially realized he was being bugged. The combination of paranoia, fear, and anger surrounding Marcus’s every thought became evident as he emotionally responded to the Department of Homeland Security watching his every move. He cautiously approached the seriousness of his situation, stating that “There were eyes out there, eyes and ears, and they were watching me. Surveilling me.” (Doctorow 86)

I was drawn to this passage because I had a similar reaction when the Edward Snowden leak occurred. Although I obviously have different circumstances than Marcus and have nothing to hide whatsoever, I still felt as if my privacy had been unrightfully invaded. Knowing that the government was capable of surveying my daily activities through my browser history, phone calls, text messages, and more gave me an uncertainty about if anything I ever did was truly private.

And as an ordinary, completely harmless citizen, I mostly viewed this process as unnecessary. The United States government has nothing to gain by monitoring my online activity, as all they will discover is the unhealthy amount of time I spend on Facebook, my ability to watch countless Grey’s Anatomy episodes on Netflix, and my slight obsession with Taylor Swift music videos.

Still, I view my browser history as mine, as it is a reflection of my day-to-day thoughts. Googling whatever comes to my mind has become a kind of second nature to me and looking at what I’ve searched will quickly reveal my favorite TV shows, places to online shop, and which classes I’m taking. At times, particularly when ads directed at me from my past search history show up, I think the Internet knows me better than I know myself. And do I want the United States government to know me on this same, personal level? Definitely not. My online activity is arguably one of the closest things to a diary that I have, and while I understand the goal of finding potential terrorists through data mining, I can’t help but feel the same paranoid, taken-aback emotions Marcus did when he was bugged.

The Importance of Logic

A confidence boost from winning the First World War led many Allied countries to lose their motivation for solving Enigma as they lacked the driving factors of fear and hardship that had provoked their initial incentive to win the war. This quickly caused German overconfidence in the security of Enigma, instigated by both the lacking effort of the Allied forces and the strength of the code itself. The Germans’ unshakable faith in their coding system would ultimately lead to their defeat as they mistakenly viewed Enigma as unbreakable.

While many other Allied countries initially gave up in most of their attempts to solve the code, Poland luckily realized the importance of having skilled cryptanalysts. Poland’s decision to hire mathematicians to solve the mechanical cipher of Enigma was one of the most crucial factors in the Allied success. By taking this mathematical approach, the cryptanalysts studied the machine’s operations and were thus able to analyze the scramblers’ and plugboard cablings’ effects.

Though creativity is an essential part of cryptanalysis, the Allied cryptanalysts used mathematics to focus more on the logical aspect of code breaking. By attacking Enigma through the discovery of repetition within the codes, the Allies were able to find patterns that uncovered the plaintext of the German code. In order to break Enigma, having a well-trained team of mathematicians was critical. Solving this highly advanced technology required a similar scientific approach in cracking its message.

Without Poland’s mathematical approach to solving Enigma, the Allied cryptanalysts would arguably never have cracked the code, as logic was the key factor in exposing the messages created by Germany’s cryptographers.

Ethically Relying on the Unknown

I believe that, just like beauty, ethics are in the eye of the beholder. Whether or not one finds a decision ethical arguably depends more on one’s own upbringing and personal experiences than the action itself. The wide variety of cultural responses to issues such as abortion, the death penalty, and civil liberties exemplifies the inconsistency between our perceptions of morality. Ethics often lack one right or wrong answer and instead simply show how actions can align, or not align, with one’s beliefs.

When Admiral William Hall decided not to tell President Woodrow Wilson about the immense progress of Britain cryptanalysts, he was making a decision for the future of his own country. Although the telegraph showed signs of American danger, Hall was instead thinking of the potential lives he would save by withholding the information. By letting the Germans know that their code had been broken, the British would be unable to prevent future, possibly greater attacks on both their allies and their own country.

Although both risky and difficult, Hall did what he believed was best in the long run. While he was uncertain that more attacks would be revealed through cryptanalyzing German telegraphs, he truly thought that saving the lives of those in future warfare was the right decision. Ethically, I agree with Hall. Although he withheld information that would have helped his allies, he was focused on doing what he believed would help the most people over time. Hall himself was not putting the Americans in danger; he simply did not act upon the information given. If he had shared Britain’s knowledge, he would have given away an advantage that could ultimately win them the war. While Hall’s decision was a difficult one, his intentions were ethical as he believed the withheld information would best help both countries in the end.

Data Mining: The Internet’s Way of Knowing Us Better Than We Know Ourselves

After a long day filled with unfamiliar Spanish vocab and seemingly endless Chemistry questions, I decide to reward myself by opening up a new tab to my most visited webpage: Facebook. I quickly scroll through my friends’ most recent uploads, my interest steadily declining. As my newsfeed takes me from one album to the next, I repeatedly encounter personalized ads designed to catch my attention at exactly the right moment. Online shopping pages with clothes I had once considered screamed for my attention as quizzes relevant to my life’s biggest decisions entitled “What type of surgeon should you be?” result in me being steered to another website. How did Facebook know I wanted to be a doctor? I had only decided this a few short weeks ago myself. I shrug my shoulders and finish my quiz, embracing the fact that Internet seemed to know me better than I knew myself.

Data mining has become one of the most valuable techniques of the Internet today, taking your personal information and using “behavioral surveillance…to predict, with amazing accuracy, the propensity for a person’s behavior” (Morris). In Morris’s article entitled Mining Student Data Could Save Lives, he argues for that mining student data by accessing their personal searches and documents could be used as a safety technique to help prevent future massacres such as the 2007 Virginia Tech case. I found this article uniquely compelling because of the relevancy it has in my life. As an active Facebook user myself, I am constantly prone to this data mining, often times without my knowledge. I hope that writing this essay will allow me to better understand data mining and how it personally affects me, as well as form an opinion on how much of your personal data I believe college campuses deserve to access.

Cryptanalysis: From Complexity to Common Knowledge

Each an art form of its own, cryptanalysis and cryptography demonstrate opposing counterparts focused on accomplishing the same common goal—the understanding of a hidden message. These two techniques highlight the competitive battle between codemakers and codebreakers. Although cryptography requires a distinct level of skill and secrecy, the practice of cryptanalysis encounters even greater obstacles as the codebreaker must determine the meaning of the hidden message as well as the technique necessary to break it. Arguably, the mastery of one skill can lead to an expertise in the other as the making of a complex cipher derives the further logic and creativity necessary to uncover these intricate codes.

Singh cites the frequency analysis technique as an “innocuous observation” by Muslim cryptanalysts that became “the first great breakthrough in cryptanalysis” (17). Nowadays, this code-breaking method is quickly and easily used by first-time cryptanalysts with no previous instruction, almost as if by second nature. While the frequency analysis technique was undoubtedly a major breakthrough in the seventh century, the vast amount of education and technology provided to our society today allows this method to become an obvious first step towards discovering the unknown.

As time has gone on and technology has expanded, the human mind has reached a common intelligence almost unimaginable even one hundred short years ago. Education has taught us to not only focus on how to put things together, but also on how to take them apart. Practices such as cryptanalysis have become more applicable to the average man as common knowledge typically requires an understanding of both how and why things work. The fifteenth century Western world is a prime example of the human tendency to discover how something functions as immediately after cryptography was introduced “already there were individuals attempting to destroy this security” (27).

While in the past cryptanalysis was labeled as an expertise only accessible to those in higher society with the finest education, its ability to be understood by even the most amateur cryptanalyst emphasizes the incredible expansion of knowledge in our society today.

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