The History and Mathematics of Codes and Code Breaking

Author: Ling

Teen Privacy

In It’s Complicated, Emily Nussbaum states “Kids today…have no sense of shame. They have no sense of privacy” (boyd 55). She continues with a series of eloquent terms that describe how the “kids” publicly defame themselves with indecent pictures, and how they are “little loons who post…their stupid poetry” and thoughts “online” (boyd 55).


In today’s complicated world of electronics, it is reasonable to see how many Internet users might not know how exactly the security on their computer functions. For example, users might feel safe uploading private information to the worldwide web because they believe their social media accounts to simply be protected by a mere password, unaware of the versatility of hackers to penetrate such protection. This sense of privacy within a security system may be the result of the user’s lack of knowledge, and subsequently may be a reason to why so many “kids” are prone to upload personal data online undeterred.


In the sense of social privacy, however, we see “kids” who are ignorant or apathetic to disclosing personal data to the public. This lack of responsibility in maintaining one’s privacy is what Emily believes to be troublesome. Yet, when posting pictures and videos of themselves, kids do carry around “a sense of shame” in selecting only photos they deem worthy to be presented to the public. While this may indicate a separate problem with their self-image, it is a counterargument for Emily’s aforementioned statement—kids do carry a sense of shame, just not the one adults typically have in mind. This leads to boyd’s point that there are teens that genuinely care about a different sense of privacy, one that involves escaping the surveillance of “paternalistic adults” (boyd 56).

It’s What We Make of It

For this blog post I would like to introduce a rather grim prospect that I’ve been pondering about the human knowledge threshold. I was reminded of the thought after reading Marcus’ discussion on how we can wield computers and other tools of such sophistication and power with just a few “lines of code” (Doctorow 119).

The idea starts out with the outlook that humankind will continue to accumulate more and more knowledge as long as we exist, be it from discoveries in the natural world or learning it from the complex information systems that others create (ex: designing and keeping up with the expansion of the internet).

Particularly in the scientific fields, as we continue to acquire more information, we will eventually reach a point of information overload. What I mean by that is, maybe in a few centuries from now, even if someone were to start learning and specializing in one specific field from the youngest age possible, it would take them more than a lifetime to learn the information already known in that subject.

Needless to say, further expansion of knowledge within that field may be impossible to achieve by studying, which grants the scholar the awful prospect that all work that is physically possible to do in a lifetime has already been done, and a sense of futility in pursuing further scholarship in that field for greater knowledge. However, one can argue that the introduction of computers that can process all the information and sustain a method of inquiry may be able to replace us and surpass the knowledge threshold we may have.

After all, the components of such “complicated machines” have been “microminiaturized” so that “billions” of parts can now fit within the “machines,” making them more efficient overall (Doctorow 119). So who’s to say we can’t further miniaturize and compact existing computers so that they are more efficient, resulting in the possibility of synthetically attaining knowledge above a human’s threshold?

We can imagine endless possibilities as arguments against this prospect of the human knowledge threshold, and counterarguments against those arguments, but the more we try to solve this information overload, the more complex our understanding of the world becomes, the greater our fall is…when, let’s say, a terrorist group wipes out all electronic data in the world. How do we advance our quest for knowledge then?

Maybe Darwinism will have an answer for our intellectual threshold.


An additional note: the above prospect is really more focused on fields that are more scientific in nature, and that demand expansion off already existing knowledge. Thus, we will never see a “knowledge threshold” in the arts, for creativity is boundless.


Rejewski and Turing

One of the main reasons for the success of the Allied cryptanalysts at Bletchley Park over German cryptographers is the acquisition of the previous work of the Polish on the German Enigma. Polish cryptanalyst, Marian Rejewski, led the polish to first break Enigma in 1932, and kept up with breaking any new security the Germans implemented to strengthen Enigma, until in 1939, when the Germans increased the number of plugboard connections from 5 to 8 to 7 to 10, which made cryptanalysis extremely more difficult. This spurred the Polish to disclose all their work on Enigma to the Allies, especially as the likelihood for another war was growing. Thus, when war broke out and the need to break Enigma became of utmost importance, the Allies had a head start on breaking the codes, as they already had acquired intelligence on Enigma.

Another curious and more indirect reason why the Allies were ultimately successful was because Britain never found out that Alan Turing was a homosexual. Turing was the one of the most important men in the war in that he led the cryptanalyst team at Bletchley Park to victory in breaking Enigma. At the time, homosexuality in Britain was illegal and it was very fortunate that the state never found out about Alan Turing’s case during the war, otherwise Turing probably would never had made it to Bletchley.  Needless to say, if Turing had not been working for the Allies during the war, Enigma may never have been broken and the Germans may have won.

The Morality of Admiral Hall’s Actions

Upon learning the intended plans of the Germans from deciphering the Zimmerman telegram, it was ethical of Admiral Hall to withhold such information from the President.


One may argue that Admiral Hall should morally concede the information to the President so that Britain may be subsequently informed, and lives could be potentially saved during the outbreak of unrestricted submarine warfare. Yet, if America was to intervene before German acted out their plan, they would’ve “concluded that their method of encryption had been broken,” leading them to “develop a new and stronger encryption system” (Singh 113). This grants the possibility of the German’s using an extremely more complicated encryption system, one that the cryptanalysts in Britain’s Room 40 may never solve in their lifetime, to act out their unrestricted submarine warfare unopposed. This, in turn, could’ve led to a higher number of wartime casualties, especially among passenger ships. Thus, through decrypting future German telegrams without their knowledge that their encryption system had already been broken, Admiral Hall’s actions could potentially save many more lives than he would’ve had he passed on the information.


Furthermore, as history proved, by not informing the President, Admiral Hall ensured that the Germans did not realize the Americans had broken their encryption system, granting the Americans an advantage in decrypting any future German messages encrypted by the same system. Eventually the Mexican version of the Zimmermann telegram led America to retaliate, granting the same outcome had the Admiral actually passed on the information, but without the Germans discovering their blunder.

The New Normal

In Hello Future Pastebin Readers, Quinn Norton talks about how everyone who has access to technology is essentially the same in that none of their personal information and data, no matter how securely uploaded or downloaded, is actually private. This particularly interests me because today’s society is so heavily centered around the distribution of information globally, and this feeling of interconnectedness provides a false sense of security to many people, because in reality, they can have no idea what other people are possibly doing with their data.

The article also exposes readers to the idea that as we progress towards the more modern and technologically-oriented society, more people will learn how to hack, and the status quo will shift to a society where people must become comfortable knowing that privately posting anything online is the same as posting it to the public. On this topic, Norton furthermore brings up the interesting prospect that we should embrace the idea of performing as if “on stage” whenever we do anything online, which ultimately may help the world move towards a more open society, technologically speaking.

Cryptographic Darwinism

In the prologue of The Code Book, Singh introduced the “evolution of codes” and explained how codes are becoming more impactful in today’s society (Singh xiv). From encrypting simple user passcodes to concealing entire online databases, cryptographic methods are evidently becoming more and more widespread.

Along with the evolution of codes, we can also see an explosive evolution in technology and similarly in the media, which is one of the vital reasons why so many people, despite their lack of training in cryptanalysis, are able to utilize frequency analysis to solve substitution ciphers. For example, the many online resources that teach people about cryptography are easily more accessible today than they were decades ago.

Furthermore, considering the long history of cryptography, it is no surprise that methods of substitution cyphers, especially those that are elementary, are made public and passed on from generation to generation, and thus has become common knowledge to even the amateur cryptanalyst. Take The Code Book itself as an example; anyone who reads the book is exposed to, at the very least, the most basic frequency analysis approach in solving substitution cyphers. They can even be completely oblivious to what cryptography was before reading the book, but by simply comprehending the first chapter, the person has enough knowledge to create and solve simple substitution ciphers. Of course, the degree to how complex the ciphers they’ve created or can solve is probably not as high as what an expert cryptanalyst can achieve.

Nonetheless, the technology today allows even amateurs to be able to solve substitution ciphers despite their lack of a “sufficiently sophisticated level of scholarship” (Singh 15).

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