The History and Mathematics of Codes and Code Breaking

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Surveillance Must Be Reined In

The privacy of American citizens should be prioritized over government surveillance efforts, even in the interests of national security. First, the right to privacy is an unalienable right that goes in tandem with, or could even be seen as the obvious and necessary inverse of, the right to free speech. Even if American’s don’t realize why this is a right they need to have—or think they have “nothing to hide”—a rhetoric that is often used in this debate, that line of thinking is a slippery slope. Just because someone can’t see how they could use a right in that moment does not mean it should be taken away from them.

Second, even if citizen’s surveillance data is being collected solely in service to law enforcement and national security efforts—which, in many cases, other tactics prove just as successful as information gathering to solving—the government should not have this much power go unchecked. As the NSA is part of the executive branch, it is a gross overreach of this one branch of government on the citizenry that needs to be balanced and overseen, to ensure that only true suspects are being surveilled and not just every citizen. Also, it is important to remember that real humans do this work, and there are always bad actors that abuse the system—for example, NSA workers that were reported to have been using their credentials to spy on ex-girlfriends. These kinds of practices are another reason why government surveillance efforts and the NSA should not be given any kind of wide latitude to surveille, and must be reined in.

The Gilded Age of Surveillance Capitalism

One phrase that Chris Gilliard used in the Leading Lines podcast that really stuck out to me, presumably because I had never heard it before, was his use of the term “surveillance capitalism.” In the podcast he was using it to compare how colleges and universities have borrowed, in his words, “some of the worst practices” of companies that collect data. There was never a term in my vocabulary to describe what I have witnessed, as I’m sure most people have, corporations like Amazon or Facebook doing—collecting and analyzing the data of everyday people to somehow profit off of this knowledge. “Surveillance capitalism” sums it up perfectly.

When I think of any big leap forward in human history—usually it is associated with a term like the “agricultural revolution” or “industrial revolution.” These terms connote a grand change, typically a positive one, in the quality of life for humans and the organization of society, and they are always associated with the way humans exchange goods—in a sense, the progression of man to fully capitalist societies. In the Western world we live in, capitalism is good, it connotes democracy and liberty and laisse faire. But where do we draw the line on the progress of capitalism? When does it go too far? It’s not a nuanced issued. It’s one that we have seen time and time again in the policy making of the United States.

So back to “surveillance capitalism”…Are we in the midst of a surveillance revolution? Definitely. But what we are seeing these days might just be the beginnings of a surveillance Gilded Age—when companies are creating monopolies just like the robber barons of the 1920s (Cornelius Vanderbilt, anyone??), except now those monopolies are being created on the collection of our whereabouts, tastes, online activities and transactions—when looked at in a connected web, essentially our identities. When companies are allowed to buy and sell a person’s digital (and often physical) history—where will we draw the line?

Having Something to Hide in the Social Media Age

“she has started creating a ‘light version’ of her life that she’ll regularly share on Facebook just so that her friends don’t pester her about what’s actually happening. Much to her frustration, she finds that sharing at least a little bit affords her more privacy than sharing nothing at all.” (Boyd 74).

In this social-media fueled age, it seems that the typical “cynic[al]” doctrine of privacy—”that only people who have something to hide need [it]” still rings true to a certain extent. I find that it is often the norm for people of my generation, which is relatively more internet conscious and well-lectured on the dangers of social media than our early 2000s counterparts, to practice certain measures of privacy from outsiders—like keeping Instagram or Facebook pages on the “private” setting so that only those who you allow can see your posts. However, I also find that it is often privacy from those we know in real life that is much harder to obtain in our online personas. In this quote a teenage girl finds that she must somewhat regularly post on Facebook to keep her friends from pestering her about why she isn’t updating people on her life online. This story is not an outlier, and it would definitely be a true statement that the norm is regular social media use, and not the other way around. If someone goes from posting regularly on any of their social media sites, to silence, it would definitely raise alarm from those in their online following and lead to invasive questioning in real life.

Therefore, these days, the idea that wanting privacy is indictive of  having something to hide, may have given way to the idea that choosing not to share (and share frequently) online is indicative of having something to hide.

What Singh Couldn’t Have Predicted

Simon Singh makes many predictions about evident trends in the increasingly digital world. 20 years later, he got a lot of things right, although from our digitally oversaturated viewpoint, they seem obvious now.  Singh was definitely correct in his prediction that soon email would overtake normal mail, and this rang true for the early 2000s era when email was absolute king of the communications world. What Singh could not have predicted, however, was that email’s reign would be relatively short lived and soon give way to the era in which everyone walks around with a computer in their pocket, and instant messages and texting rule daily life (not to mention the communication capacities of every social media platform). Similarly, Singh’s prediction that ecommerce would become more prevalent in individuals’ lives also rings true. Widespread love of online shopping among most consumers, as well as ease-of-use companies like Amazon have created a world in which most people probably transfer credit card information on the internet at least once every day.

One topic that Singh does not touch on is the increased use of GPS technology. He could not have imagined that one day in the near future everyone would walk around with what can essentially be used as a tracking device in their pocket. Encryption for this kind of information is so necessary, to ensure that no foreign entity has the ability to track where you work, live, shop, or travel.

Many of Singh’s predictions came true, but in a grand way that he could never have imagined. The digital revolution ushered in a new era of almost impossible privacy—encryption is now more necessary than ever, not just to protect our communications, but also to protect our finances, information, and even our whereabouts.

Alice, Bob, and Impressive Dedication

As we’ve discussed at length in this course—the history of cryptography is riddled with instances of problems that at first glance seem immutable. The issue of key distribution was one of these supposedly immutable doctrines of secret writing. However, as we have also seen—the history of cryptography is also riddled with people so determined to fix these problems, that they will dedicate their whole lives to finding a solution. Whitfield Diffie and his similarly (and maybe even fruitlessly) determined colleagues identified the problem of key distribution as one worthy of intense study.

Although I may not completely understand the complex computer languages of ASCII or the way that computers can generate millions of key and cipher possibilities in the blink of an eye, the grand concept of sending secure messages through the analogy of Alice, Bob, and Eve is somehow paradoxically easier to understand. This relationship is in essence a great riddle, and a puzzle that I can appreciate. While usually the dedication of famous cryptographers puzzles me, as I find it hard to believe that people will go to such lengths to solve some seemingly tiny problem for a slim chance of going down in mathematics or military history—they problem of key distribution seems so applicable and real, especially looked at in the context of today’s internet age. In this climate of data mining or even straight up data theft, all I can say is thank you to Whitfield Diffie and his collaborators for caring (obsessing?) so much about key distribution and about the privacy of the ordinary person.

The Secret Struggles of WWII’s Female Codebreakers

Although female codebreakers were completing some of the most important work on the intelligence front during World War II, the necessary secrecy of their work as well as their gender led these women to not always receive the treatment that they deserved. In the 1940s women in general were seen as subordinate to men, and deemed more suited to tedious tasks—for example, in Chapter 11, upon their arrival at a training camp in Dayton, Ohio the women were set with the laborious and monotonous, yet exacting task of using a soldering iron to connect intricate wire systems, all before they even knew why they had been send to the camp. And even once female code breakers proved their worth and gained respect from their male counterparts (men that often served as their superiors even when the women were clearly more experienced and knowledgeable about the codes being worked on), they still consistently dealt with the innate sexism of other army and navy personnel. Louise Pearsall, already considered one of the “top girls” by all of her male superiors, was held up with her female coworkers for hours when they were supposed to be on official and pressing business in Washington because the sailors in charge of processing them were under the sexist impression that the women working in Dayton were shameful. This impression was due to yet another obstacle placed in the way of women with hopes of helping their country through Naval service—that of the forced choice between work and motherhood, an obstacle still prevalent for women in the work force to this day. Despite all of these obstacles, the female codebreakers of World War II persevered and excelled at their tiring and often thankless work.

Podcast Building: Substance and Style


In the Zodiac Killer episode from the One Time Pod, the podcast creator kept her audience engaged both through stylistic aspects and an interesting topic. I particularly enjoyed the use of ominous background music that changed as the speaker told the story to build the mood—it was also just the perfect sound level so as not to be distracting. Also, the topic of the Zodiac Killer was a great choice because it is a story that is still very prevalent in pop culture today, and I liked how the creator included hints of this, for example when she mentioned Ted Cruz at the end of her episode. The subject matter allowed for a more in dept description of the Zodiac Ciphers, because the audience was likely paying attention anyway because of the popularity of the topic. Based on what I liked about this podcast, I definitely am going to put a lot of work into picking the subject matter for my episode—as a more interesting topic will make it easier to spend time talking about technical aspects of cryptography without losing audience interest. Also, it made me realize the power of background noise in building the mood of an episode.

All is Fair in Love and War

In The Code Book, Simon Singh details the codebreaking successes of the British military during World War I–successes that often needed to be kept secret and prevented the spread of some important, yet sensitive information during the war. One such piece of critical information was the Zimmerman telegram. While some may think it completely unethical of Admiral Hall to withhold the information gathered after cracking the Zimmerman telegram from American intelligence, it was simply a fact of wartime priorities. The British were the ones embroiled in war, which is a time when a nation looks out for their own interest over the those of other nations (especially the United States, which was not active in the war at this time). Additionally, while America would surely suffer from the impending unrestricted u-boat warfare and lives would be lost from torpedo attacks, there are many reasons why Admiral Hall’s actions to allow these attacks to happen would also save lives in the long run. First, the information gathered by Britain’s Room 40 was crucial in British victories and undoubtedly saved the lives of many British soldiers and civilians. Also, Admiral Hall hoped these attacks would implicate America in the conflict in such a way that necessitated their entrance into the war, a policy chance that would hopefully help the Allies to win the war sooner and thus save more lives in the long run. Therefore, the lines drawn in this instance of ethical dilemma are not black and white, as is usually the case in times of war.

Too Many Eyes to Fit in the Panopticon’s Tower

I would agree with Walker’s claim that the Panopticon is not an accurate metaphor for the average human’s interaction with surveillance today. While it could be argued that the government does watch over us and large corporations do silently collect our data, most people are not aware of this and thus it does not enact behavioral changes like it was supposed to do in the Panopticon. Additionally, Walker argues that the Panopticon metaphor limits its idea of surveillance solely to the “big brother” in the tower—the NSA or government, in our case—while today there exists so many other forms of surveillance such as the “self-surveillance” present on so many social media sites, or the ability of companies like Facebook to collect and sell your data, or Amazon’s Alexa to listen in on your conversations to find out what you might want to buy next. I would argue, however, that our increasingly socially connected world allows for the “self-surveillance” of another nature, however. Not only do social media sites allow so much scrutiny by the court of public opinion that it might feel like someone is always watching you online, but many social media outlets now have means of physical surveillance by one’s own peers. Apps like “Find my Friends” allow those who you “add” to track your location, while the widely used social media app Snapchat has now created a map that shows you where all of your Snapchat friends are at any given time, provided that they are not on “ghost mode.” Services like these allow for so much more surveillance from many sources, not just the man in the Panopticon’s tower.

Prying Telephone Operators and Free Radio Waves: Implications of New Tech on Secure Messages

Because the onset of the telegraph inserted a middleman in the communication of a sender and receiver, messages not meant for prying eyes understandably needed to be encrypted with a more secure cipher like the Vigenère cipher. Since the invention of the telegraph in the 19thcentury, several other inventions or innovations in the world of communication have simultaneously increased the global spread of information, while also creating significant implications for security and privacy.  For example, with the first primitive forms of the telephone, an operator was needed to connect the caller to their recipient. This operator could hypothetically listen to any call they wanted to, which created a feeling of insecurity in this form of communication that was quite similar to that of the telegram—that of distrust in a middleman (or woman, as switchboard operators at this time were often female). Similarly, with the invention of radio in the 20thcentury, any message sent over radio waves could be picked up freely, so messages necessarily needed to be encrypted if they contained sensitive material, especially in times of war, as information gathering agencies would often employ this tactic to collect knowledge on the plans or whereabouts of their enemies. Needless to say, every technological advancement brings with it uncertainty, and the risk of cession of privacy or security should be considered before any advancement in communication becomes widespread.

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