The History and Mathematics of Codes and Code Breaking

Author: Marianna

Encryption Use for Journalists

Because my paper is directed at students who wish to pursue a career in journalism, many of my sources are articles found in the Columbia Journalism Review, a magazine aimed at journalists. There have been several articles written about encryption use for journalists in the past few years, especially in the wake of the Snowden leaks. The movie Citizenfour provided some additional background on the events surrounding these leaks. Additionally, I may use Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras as specific examples of journalists using cryptography. While their situation was a bit more extreme and sensitive than what the average future journalist is likely to encounter, it is still useful for students to know something of what they did to communicate with Snowden. I have discovered in the course of my research that encrypted communications, in addition to protecting anonymous sources, also serves an important purpose for journalists in that it makes those sources more comfortable communicating sensitive information. (Additionally, some experts believe that journalists should continually operate under the assumption that if someone truly wants to find out information about their anonymous sources, that they will be able to do so.) Apparently, there is not much of a focus currently in journalism programs or within the news agencies themselves on teaching encryption techniques, so until things change this is something important for students to study on their own.

Security Should Defend Citizens, Not Abuse Them

Photo Credit: 'Goed Zoekveld' by Bart van de Biezen. Flickr. Creative Commons.

Photo Credit: ‘Goed Zoekveld’ by Bart van de Biezen. Flickr. Creative Commons.

The goal of the US government’s security agencies ought to be to preserve a society that values the freedom of American citizens. If those rights must be sacrificed in the interest of security measures, then what have these measures truly accomplished? If the US government were given wide latitude to use electronic surveillance, even if this surveillance was only supposed to be used to find threats to national security, this power would likely be abused. Already, without laws giving permission to surveil citizens, the NSA can and has reached deep into the private lives of individual citizens. If these citizens were individuals planning a terror attack then these actions might seem more justified, but they were not. A recent Wired article about Edward Snowden mentions a document “that showed the NSA was spying on the pornography-viewing habits of political radicals… [and] that the agency could use these “personal vulnerabilities” to destroy the reputations of government critics who were not in fact accused of plotting terrorism” (Bamford, 2013.) This surveillance for political purposes has happened in the past, too: for example, the FBI used a wiretap on Martin Luther King in 1963 and passed the information it gathered on to the anti-civil-rights Senator James Eastland who used it in debates (Singh, 306.) This goes far beyond what is necessary in order to protect the country from those with criminal intentions, and laws expressly permitting the violation of citizens’ privacy would only make it easier for similar events to occur. Rather than defending America, such practices would violate the country’s fundamental values of freedom and democracy.

99% Accurate Means 1% Wrong

One passage that caught my attention in Little Brother was the explanation of false positives and why they cause so many problems in systems like the terrorism detection in the book. For some things, a test that is 99% accurate works great. However, if the test is trying to detect something that is very uncommon in a very large group—such as people who are terrorists, which the book estimates as making up 1/20,000% of a city’s population—then that 1% of inaccuracy begins to cause a huge problem. In a city like San Francisco, with 20 million people, incorrectly identifying 1% of the population as terrorists means investigating two hundred thousand innocent citizens—in order to maybe catch ten terrorists. And, as such a system would likely be far less than 99% accurate, the problem would be far worse.

Things like this are important to take into consideration in today’s society, which is becoming ever more concerned with security and devising new ways to prevent terrorist attacks—even if it means invading people’s privacy. While programs such as the one in the book are not currently in place in America, if an attack like the one on the Bay bridge were to occur there would likely be support for implementing them. However, there comes a point at which, in the name of “defending freedom,” freedom is actually taken away, and that’s something we need to be very careful of.

Temptation and Treasure

Although thousands of intelligent, well-trained people have attempted to break the Beale ciphers, they remain a mystery. However, the defeats of the past do not deter the many people who still try to crack the code. Some of these people are driven by the thought of the treasure buried by Beale years ago. A potential reward of $20 million can be highly motivating. For most, though, it is likely more than that—after all, trying to break an unbreakable code is sort of terrible as a get-rich-quick scheme. Instead, it is the tale itself that is the draw. A mysterious stranger, buried treasure, coded notes—it all reads like an adventure story, and that’s something people want to be a part of.  We are surrounded by stories like this our whole lives, and as children we play at being pirates following a map to the buried chest of gold. Attempting to solve the Beale ciphers makes this childhood game a reality.

Additionally, some cryptographers reason that someone has to eventually come up with a solution—so why not them? We often think that we will be able to be the one who solves a problem even if we’ve seen many people fail at the same task. This can be commonly seen in simple everyday tasks. If one person in a group tries to open a door and gives up, saying it’s locked or stuck, often others will test the handle for themselves. Even if they don’t consciously realize it, they believe that they will be able to do better than the first person—somehow if they jiggle the handle differently or apply enough pressure the door will open for them. The Beale ciphers are a locked door behind which lies the answer to a hundred-year-old mystery. It’s just too much to resist.

Limiting Use of Location Services

Many college students sacrifice a large part of their privacy every day. They download a new app, and when it requests to use their location data, they agree without even thinking about it. While these services can certainly make things more convenient—you can quickly know what restaurants are around you, or find the closest gas station in seconds—using them means that your phone is continuously broadcasting where you are and what you’re doing. Using social networking apps can make this information even more blatantly obvious: by uploading geotagged photos you create a map of your activities and locations that would be fairly easy for someone to access.

In order to better protect their online privacy, students should better educate themselves about how their phone’s location services work and exactly what information they are sending out to the world. One of the easiest things to do is to simply avoid sharing where you are on social media—especially if you’re somewhere you can be found regularly. Additionally, you can more selectively use apps that require location data by leaving location services turned off most of the time, and only switching it back on if you absolutely need to. Taking steps like these only requires seconds of your time, but it makes a world of difference to your level of personal privacy.

Blog Assignment 1: Cryptography and Scholarship

During the class discussion of Singh Chapter 1, we talked about how cryptography and cryptanalysis has developed as societies have advanced. Singh states that “Cryptanalysis could not be invented until a society had reached a sufficiently sophisticated level of scholarship in several disciplines, including mathematics, statistics, and linguistics.” Looking back, many of the ciphers once used to encrypt sensitive political messages now seem dangerously insecure. However, at the time they were unbreakable, or nearly so.

An example of this change in thinking can be seen in the way that many children pass secret messages to their friends. Although they may not know the technical name for it, they are able to understand and use a shift cipher—the sort of cipher once used by rulers and generals—even at a young age. Once they get a bit older, they are able to crack one of these ciphers fairly easily too, as our class saw from the first cryptanalysis worksheet. The reason for this is not that kids today are somehow all being born smarter. The difference is that the “scholarship” once available only to the elite has become much more ingrained in our culture. This seems obvious once you mention it, but in fact it can sometimes be overlooked, and it’s something that should be kept in mind when studying cryptography’s history.


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