The History and Mathematics of Codes and Code Breaking

Author: ragieleg

Little Brother's Marcus and The Doctrines of Terrorism

Before Marcus holds the first alternative/video-game-generated/XNet run press conference the world has ever seen after the gross media bias taking place in response to the Don’t Trust “riot,” Ange gives him this pep talk—“If you want to really screw the DHS, you have to embarrass them…your only weapon is your ability is to make them look like morons.”

Although perhaps a little simplified in this instance, the influence of one common adage is pervasive—How do you fight a war against terrorism, a fight against ideology? You introduce better ideas.

The influence of doctrines on the war on terror such as this one in Little Brother is not surprising, although I will admit, I found it the slightest bit ironic. While plenty of idealists are familiar with the theory of introducing new and better ideas, Doctorow’s main character Marcus turns this theory on its head, instead using his knowledge of the dark web and his impressive ability to mobilize other likeminded young idealists to take a different approach. So how do you, if you are Marcus, fight an ideology (in this case the distorted ideas about privacy by the DHS)? You recruit a brilliant group of internet vigilantes to prove the ideas are wrong by speeding up the process of self-implosion inevitable for the bad ideas. You can spend your whole life trying to spread new, better ideas—the process will be long, tiring, laborious, and might seem absolutely fruitless at times—or you can take a page out of Marcus’s book and sabotage an entire operation to make the bad ideas so present in everyone’s lives that they are unrefutably bad. Although I definitely admit Marcus’s strategy is not the most orthodox of practices, I genuinely admire the guts.

The Role of Data Privacy in Campus Safety

In his essay “Mining Student Data Could Save Lives,” Michael Morris urges universities to act upon their unique ability to prevent possible acts of mass violence by screening student’s data footprints. Morris explains that the use of university email addresses and campus wireless networks permits most college IT departments the ability to mine the data of their students, but that restrictions within the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, as well as some administrators’ fears over student privacy, has slowed or prevented the implementation of student data mining for security purposes. Although the implications of universities having control over student internet usage are precarious, Morris argues that most students have already, whether willingly or not, relinquished most control over their online privacy through the use of social media and other websites, and therefore begs the question of whether or not safety on campus is more important than the (according to Morris, somewhat superficial) notion of privacy.

While I understand the potential risks these practices could have to student privacy, I also believe that every student has a right to safety in their place of learning, and anything that can be done to prevent atrocities such as mass shootings on campuses is worth the slightest perceived loss in privacy.

The Perils of Hubris in Cryptography

On page 41 of Simon Singh’s The Code Book, Singh makes the interesting assertion that “a weak encryption can be worse than no encryption at all.” This seemingly paradoxical statement reveals how hubris can be the downfall of any great cryptographic scheme. Best exemplified in the case of Mary Queen of Scots, when two parties deem a cipher or code secure and therefore write their messages freely with no fear of discovery, this overconfidence can ultimately result in their downfall. Had Mary’s messages not been so explicitly linked to the assassination plot of Queen Elizabeth, and instead been deliberately vague, the evidence against her would have been weak enough to possibly save her life.

The beheading of Mary Queen of Scots should serve as a cautionary tale to any modern cryptographer to remember the possibility that your enemy has already cracked your code, or that another part of the world is already much advanced in the art of code breaking. A good cryptographist should take extra precautions when crafting their message to ensure that, if the encryption fails, the implications of their message, should it land in the wrong hands, are as limited as possible. No code should be deemed unbreakable by its creators, and stenography and subtlety of language are just as crucial in encryption as a strong cipher or nomenclature.

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