The History and Mathematics of Codes and Code Breaking

Author: Parker

I always feel like somebody’s watching me

“Like many of his peers, Christopher believes that there is a significant difference between having the ability to violate privacy and making the choice to do so.” (Its Complicated, 74)

I love my mom. She is a great mother; however, her views on privacy line up pretty closely to that of the “intensive” parenting style described in the chapter which caused some tension growing up. Before my junior year of high school, it was not unordinary for her to read through my texts, track my location, or even search through my social media outlets, and this was not because of anything that I had done to warrant this, it was just her philosophy of what a loving parent should do.

I believe that, as a parent, it is important to have knowledge of your child’s whereabouts when his safety is not ensured and general knowledge of what is going on his life. Because of this, parents should have access to this information of their child (e.g. location services and “friends” on social media); however, as the quote points out, there is a big difference between access to violating privacy and actually doing so. I think that parents too frequently make trust and privacy complementary properties, where the increase of one causes a decrease of the other, which I think misses the mark of what trust means completely.

There are plenty of ties that can be made to the security vs. privacy argument, but one obvious difference is the scale of operation. On the national scale, the government is far outnumbered by the people, while in the family, the child is typically outnumbered by other family members. A smaller scale makes bad behavior much more difficult to sneak by the involved parent. This makes invasions of privacy cause, usually, just negative feelings and no protection of the child. This being said there are plenty of examples in which this is not the case, including an ignorant child who does not know how to properly act online or a child who actually has had made poor decisions in the past.


I Don’t Care.

The best security measures in the world, even the seemingly flawless and fool-proof of systems, can be beaten by the simplest of things: the failing to enforce it.

In Little Brother by Cory Doctorow, there was a point in which Marcus received an email from some followers who were caught jamming by some cops. However, after waiting to be interrogated in one a prison truck, they were released after a new shift of cops decided that they had “better things to do than bother [them] with more questions.”

Isn’t this so telling of our relationship with technology? It is the whole “Technology is only as good as the person using it” argument all over again. If someone somewhere along the chain of command decides that he/she doesn’t care, the whole system goes down the drains.

This is also evident in other historical cryptographic events as well. The Enigma machine was cracked partially due to the fact that cryptographers got lazy. They had predictable language and sometimes even predictable keys (e.g. initials of loved ones). Without these, the Enigma could have been “uncrackable” for a much longer time.

This story from the book also interests me because it discusses human motivation in an almost real-world setting. Antoine de Saint-Exupery once said, “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.” The DHS did not properly motivate their employees to ensure that they would follow through with their commands which led to failure in this situation. People will only go so far for so long when listening to orders before they give up. This can be due to any number of reasons. In one scene, when Marcus invited Ange over to use the XBox and chill for the evening, Ange points out one of these reasons and notes that Marcus’s “only weapon is [his] ability to make [the DHS] look like morons.” She points out that in order to derail the DHS, Marcus needs to undermine the motivation of the DHS to continue what they were doing.


Divided and Conquered

The Allied cryptanalysts were victorious over the German cryptographers due to a variety of reasons; however, one rather simple reason is often overlooked: the allies had a much larger and much more unified base of cryptologists than the Germans.

Germany had a total of around 30,000 people working in the intercepting, decoding, and coding of messages. The European Axis powers had a grand total of 36,000 people working in those endeavors. The Allied powers had a number closer to 60,000 people doing the same jobs, nearly twice that of the Axis powers. Just think about the implications of this: more people leads to more intercepted messages, which leads to more cipher text to work with (a historically beneficial resource in terms of breaking codes), and more people leads to more brain power trying more techniques to break the same code.

In addition to this, Germany did not have a central cryptology base like the Allies did at Bletchley Park. The Germans were spread out among 6 different bases, and would often overlap in each other’s efforts, duplicating each other’s work and thus wasting time and resources. There was some collaboration but not nearly to the degree of the Allies. In Andrew’s blog post, he discusses the importance of collaboration in the field of cryptology so I will not expand upon this as much.

Finally, the Germans never created a bombe-like machine that could decipher messages which can very easily be attributed to the division and smaller size of the German forces. Without this key technology, Germans had to do a lot of the leg work manually which is much much more time-consuming and much less reliable. The bombe and other machines like it (Colossus and Tunny) exponentially increased the cryptographic progress of the Allies, catapulting them far ahead of the Axis powers.


Click here to see my primary source.

Übermensch and Unterseeboots

Who has the right to say how much lives are worth? Could allowing for the death of the few to save many be moral? Do the ends just have to justify the means in order to commit crime?*

Admiral Hall definitely thought so. He thought the protection of his knowledge of the decipherment of the German’s message was more important than the lives of Americans due to the fact there was a possibility of prolonging the war should the knowledge of the decipherment reach the Germans.

However, I believe that it was not ethical. There had to be someway the British could have shared the information with the Americans so that the Germans would not expect their cipher had been broken. Gambling with the lives of people when not all the facts are known. At least as it seemed in the The Code Book, Admiral Hall based his decision off of a lot of “probably”s and not hard facts.

It could be said that Hall was just doing what was best for the future of his country, but that does not by any means translate to morality. Just because an action benefits the people around someone does not justify gambling the lives of foreigners.

Although I agree that it was safe for Hall to hold back on the alerting America when only a part of the cipher had been cracked, I think it would have been the best option to still open up about that level of communication. In other words, tell America what has transpired and that they (Britain) will let America know if the decipherment of the rest of the message changes anything. I think by being completely honest about everything will prevent America from distrusting Britain as it said America might do if Britain simply just told them about the decrypted message.


*This idea of taking morality into one’s own hands is discussed by the German philosopher, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, in his Übermensch theory (way before Nietzsche).

“War is Peace, Freedom is slavery, ignorance is strength”

Think about the term “preemptive war.” Isn’t it a little funny? A war to prevent a war. Is it worth it? What happens if it fails? Could a war larger than the theoretical one be waged then? It is definitely not impossible…

What about the idea that a world without surveillance seems to beg tragedy and pain? Does it have to be that way? Yes, behavioral surveillance has the possibility of stopping incidents from happening, but at what cost? Michael Morris’s “Crystal ball” isn’t as clear as he is making it out to be. Even with the most up-to-date data mining systems, you cannot truly get inside someones head. What happens when an official approaches someone with the intent of preventing a disaster? Could the official rub that person the wrong way and only succeed in pushing someone over the edge? What about the multitude of false-positives that are likely to pop-up? How can any task-force sort through all of them each with a level of scrutiny to determine if a person is sane? And what about the people who leave no virtual mark of the suffering they are going through?

Now think about the mass ignorance of the surveillance already being perpetrated against every one of us? I, for one, had no idea all that the NSA had been reported of doing until taking this class. What about everyone else? Is this ignorance bliss?

What kind of Orwellian society are we living in today? Have our nightmares become our reality?

I am choosing to write about “Mining Student Data Could Save Lives” by Michael Morris because I think Morris brings up many interesting points (some I touched upon above) without truly considering all that comes with it.



*The title references a famous line from 1984 by George Orwell*

Evolution of Knowledge

Isn’t it strange to think that modern high schoolers undoubtedly know more about mathematics and various disciplines of sciences than ancient or even not so ancient scientists who devoted their entire lives to certain subjects? I mean, if you think about it, it’s not too ludicrous. They definitely have a greater grasp on mathematics than, say, Pythagoras, who’s crown jewel of a discovery is currently being taught to 6th graders around the world. Take Isaac Newton, for example, a man who appears in textbook after textbook as the late-renaissance wonder man who invented integral and differentiable calculus. He discovered the basics for physics, including the laws of motion, gravity, and optics. However, they are exactly that, the basics. Now, do not think I am bashing Newton by any means. Nor am I saying that high schoolers know all that he knew or are more intelligent than him. He is possibly the greatest thinker in the history of man; however, modern education has advanced so much so that today’s teenagers now take the knowledge that past scientists and mathematicians spent their lives discovering for granted. More and more advanced knowledge and problem solving skills are being exposed to a younger and younger audience in today’s education system. That is not to say that past “ground breaking” discoveries were by any means easy. It was no more easy than a scientist today discovering the secrets to the quantum world.

Because of this, it is no surprise that seeming “amateurs” use frequency analysis and other cryptanalysis strategies that took centuries to develop. Let’s take the credentials of a possible “amateur” cryptanalyst into consideration. He/She probably has some sort of upper level (comparative to a few hundred years ago) mathematic training including calculus and statistics and probably multiple years of taking English courses, all of this learned from high school. According to my previous assertion, wouldn’t this count as a “sufficiently sophisticated level of scholarship in several disciplines, including mathematics, statistics, and linguistics” (Singh 15)? I think so.

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