The History and Mathematics of Codes and Code Breaking

Author: colins

A Trend Towards the Solution

I find it horrible that almost every week I open up my phone to see the news report of some mass shooting. Wether it be one of the gruesome, countless school shootings, or a larger event such as the Las Vegas shooting, the following investigative reports remain the same. In the following days or weeks the police and FBI will eventually uncover online conversations, gun purchases, social media posts, or other digital markers that posed a clear indication of the shooter’s intentions. Why do we always find these clues after the fact. After the heartbroken families, crying parents who know they will never see their children again. Always after. Meta data collection and surveillance could completely change the timeline and change that “after”, to a “before”. If the US government was given permission to use widespread surveillance to stop these atrocities, would that be wrong. Would the parents of victims rather have more privacy, or the chance to see their child grow up. I think it is an easy answer.

Moreover, the already increased amount of electronic surveillance since 9/11 have prevented an attack of that scale from occurring. Even still there has been about 6 major terrorist attacks since, including the Boston Marathon Bombing. So why curtail a movement in the direction of what appears to be the clear solution? National Security is important now more than ever. As criminals and terrorists learn and adapt, so should we.

Careful Campus

After recently watching Citizenfour, I feel myself being much more cautious about what I search on the web. I do not do this because I have anything to hide, but because people do not act the same when they believe, or in this case know, they are being surveilled. These podcast episodes did not exactly put my mind at ease either. With problems such as ransomware and botnet, it seems a lack of knowledge could cost the average citizen a lot more than a few lost files. Therefor, the question remains, how do we protect ourselves from these cyber attacks?

College students around the world use their devices for primarily social media. Some of that content is private in the sense that you only want a select amount of people to be able to view it. So, how do we protect our accounts? The best way also is the most simple: long and complicated passwords. The more random and lengthy the password is, the harder for an attacker to gain access. Another caution to hold in your mind brings me back to the video we watched about the reporter who visited “hacker-con” in Russia. To show the ease and speed with which an attacker can infiltrate a device, the interviewees set up a fake wifi account under the hotels name. The reporter logged on to the wifi and the attackers were then able to snake-hole their way through the rest of her passwords and locks with ease. If I could offer two pieces of substantial advice for fellow college students I would offer: use strong passwords and always be vigilant of what you connect with your device.


All Eyes on Us

“Although teens grapple with managing their identity and navigating
youth-centric communities while simultaneously maintaining
spaces for intimacy, they do so under the spotlight of a media ecosystem
designed to publicize every teen fad, moral panic, and new hyped

Who dictates how long mistakes last? Do they linger for a few embarrassing weeks or days until gradually fading from the memories and interest of our stimulation seeking brains? Or are they held up for the world to see, for as long as the internet exists? Our parents and generations before did not necessarily have to worry about the latter happening, because their social lives did not revolve around sharing details, pictures, or videos of themselves for friends and the public alike to see. You did something regrettable, embarrassed yourself and eventually it would most likely not be brought up again. The reality of the modern teen or young adult is much different.

I am not arguing that people should not be held accountable for mistakes, rather I present the idea that there is a looming cloud that shrouds my generation. Someone is always watching, recording, or listening. A certain pressure descends upon teenagers in social situations. That does not excuse us from making dumb decisions but rather increases the likelihood that those mistakes will prevent opportunities in the future.

Say someone takes a video or a picture that you do not want spread, but that picture is instead posted to a certain social media site. Once it is shared, there not much anyone can do to completely erase that picture. You are now a permanent fixture on someone’s page. This is exactly the point where teens try to make the point that they do value privacy and security. Just because teens share information about themselves on the internet, does not mean they have requested a book with everything they’ve every said or done written about them.

So, in a society as interconnected as ours is today, how do we deal with the proposition of privacy? Delete all of our social media accounts? Possibly, but extremely unlikely for the majority. I am not quite so sure myself wether there is a solution to this issue. Maybe these are just new times, a new reality where everyone’s private life, becomes that bit more public.

The Progress of Necessity

In 99% Invisible’s episode Vox Ex Machina, the producer outlines the transformation of a piece of groundbreaking technology from recreational to military use in the midst of the Second World War. The “Voder” was introduced in 1939 to a crowd of dazzled people at the World Fair. A marvel of mechanical mimicking of the human vocal chords, inventor Homer Dudley had embarked on a quest that would shape the way humans will communicate up to this day.

I really enjoyed how the producer, Delaney Hall, pulls the audience in with the dramatic shift from a playful invention to a wartime necessity. Soon after Pearl Harbor, the United States Government commissioned specifically Homer Dudley to design a machine that would effectively encrypt radio waves for secure communication. Halls use of a dramatic need with a ticking clock adds an element of interest to the podcast. Furthermore, she expands on not just the one time use of the “vocoder”, but the way it transformed the history of communication.

The continued decrease in size brought on by the military’s improvements was a gradual process that aided Cold War negotiations. Consequently, these adaptations eventually reached the grasp of the public. With AT&T’s lawsuit against the military to release information, the capability of public communication skyrocketed. I enjoyed the fun twist Hall applied to the end of the podcast where she included links to its effects on electronic music of famous artists. Hall’s creativity and dramatics made this podcast extremely gripping and will be elements I incorporate into my own podcast.


Ethics in Wartime

Would you sacrifice one life to save a thousand? It is a morally stupefying question that has gone against our societies ethics. Do we favor the collective good over the good of the individual? However ambiguous the answer is during peace, I believe the answer is clear in wartime. The collective good takes precedent. Admiral William Hall knew this to be true when making the decision to keep the Zimmerman telegram a secret.

The implications of the Zimmerman telegram were possibly multiple civilian casualties as a result of unrestricted U-boat warfare. Admiral Hall knew this and weighed his options. He knew if he passed on the information to President Wilson, the Germans would inevitable know that the British had cracked their code. This with the fact that Admiral Hall knew that the U-boat warfare would most likely incite The U.S. to enter the war all factored into his decision to keep the intelligence a secret.

Admiral William Halls decision reminded me of the movie The Imitation Game staring Benedict Cumberbatch. In the final scene after the British cryptanalysis team crack the seemingly unbreakable Enigma code machine, Alan Turing (played by Benedict Cumberbatch) realizes they cannot immediately act on every piece of information, even if it means saving hundreds of life’s. In a captivating moment the characters agree that the outcome of the war depends on the secrecy of their work’s completion. In closing, I believe that Admiral Hall’s decision was ethical in the time and place he made it, even if today we might regard it conversely.


Changing Opinions on Big Brother

The Newseum’s thought provoking display on the questions of privacy and security raise serious questions on the ethical backbone of law enforcement arguments for increased surveillance. My first exposure to this topic was during the summer before my sophomore year. I attended a debate camp at Samford University and practiced speed reading and making quick arguments and rebuttals on the topic of government surveillance.

At the camp many of the arguments made in favor and against curtailing surveillance were the same made in our class discussions. Safety, privacy, and security were all hot words. I noticed truly how much 9/11 had affected our country. People were willing to give up the thing they loved most about a free country, privacy, in order to feel safe. I somewhat agreed with them at the time as, one, I didn’t know very much about the issue and, two, I felt that surveillance could only make a person sneak around if they had something to hide.

Upon reading Cory Doctrow’s Little Brother and participating in subsequent class discussions, however, I found my beliefs to be quite the opposite. I think government agencies surveillance for abnormalities that represent threats is fine, but when the line is crossed into constant nonconsensual data mining, I begin to disagree. The importance of protecting your own space resonated deeply with me and I realized that privacy does matter. A simple analogy that made clear sense was, as Marcus referred to it in the novel, pooping in Time Square. We value privacy becomes it represents ownership. Citizens want to own their lives and control their actions and, like in the panopticon, it becomes increasingly hard to act the way you want to when presented with the possibility of being constantly watched.

What we don’t know drives us

To understand why amateur and professional cryptanalysts alike have not given up on the Beale ciphers after hundreds of years, the reader must refer back to a quotation in the beginning of The Code Book. Singh so appropriately referenced John Chadwick in saying, “The urge to discover secrets is deeply ingrained in human nature.”

I believe the intrigue behind the Beale Ciphers is not as much motivated by the promise of literal tons of gold, but by the natural desire to discover the unknown. The prospect of an unbreakable code, that has duped some of the brightest minds of the past century, not only challenges, but insults those who feel the inclination towards discovery. It is the push for a higher understanding and a greater knowledge.

I experienced similar feelings at young age. As I was riding the subway in New York City on vacation with my family many years ago, I realized I could not understand anything being said around me. The car was packed with people of different ethnicities and backgrounds and the melting pot of tongues fascinated, as well as frustrated me. I had a desire to listen and understand. While none of what was being said around me were actual secrets, they were to my english only vocabulary.

I believe the reason I choose to study languages in school, is the same driving force behind cryptanalysts pursuit of the elusive Beale Ciphers. To some ignorance is bliss, but to most of us it is a constant nagging of what we lack in understanding.





The Science behind Ditching School

One of the most interesting passages from Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother was Marcus’s in-depth description of his escape from his prison like school. It was not, however, the clever routes nor the email blasts sent to distract the school narc that fascinated me, rather, it was the technology the school used to identify each student in the hallways and Marcus’s clever techniques to evade it.

You might have seen the implementation of Gait Recognition software in popular movies such as Mission Impossible Rogue Nation, but I doubt you know the extent of its application. In the novel, Marcus describes how courts had deemed it unconstitutional for the Schools to place cameras in the hallway to monitor the students, so, as an end-around, they had put in gait recognition cameras. Marcus details how the cameras pick up a student’s “gait” or manner of walking and catalog them in a database with a profile. He goes on to explain how each person has their own unique stride length, pace, and dip in their step which makes the system extremely efficient.

The pitfalls in the schools security are exactly those plaguing the advances in gait recognition software today. Developers of these technologies struggle to keep results consistent as a person’s natural gait can change slightly in regards to footwear, clothing, and even emotional state. The benefits of being an unobtrusive surveillance device also lend to its potential inaccuracies. Marcus, being the intelligent 17 year old he is, quickly realizes this fact.

Marcus and his friends realize that by pouring a few pieces of gravel into their shoes they can make the software unsure enough to where it will not sound an alarm and also not be able to match his gait with his profile. Throughout the novel as his city becomes more like a police state, Marcus uses this technique to evade detection against an intelligent recognition software.

Through the Looking Glass

Do we as a society value privacy or safety more? A lieutenant in the University Police Department System in California argues that we have already made our answer clear through the increasing use of the internet and Social Media.  Michael Morris makes the controversial stand in his essay that since we have already “forfeited” our privacy through our ever growing interconnectedness. By this logic Morris argues that University Officials would be mistaken to not implement data mining in order to catch early warning signs of threatening behavior.

As morally upright as the end game of saving lives in his argument stands, the means by which it might be accomplished directly contradicts what many people value about living in the United States. I, myself, disagree with a few key aspects of the suggestion.

Morris mentions the complicated algorithms used to organize data into usable information such as screen or early warning signs of violent behavior. This seems like a practical application of such tech, but then Morris compares it with a concerning example of data mining. I know personally when I have been with my parents at a store far from home or on a vacation, the most stressful thing is having to call our credit card company and explain, and prove beyond a doubt that our card has not been stolen. A stressful inconvenience that results from a predictive algorithm, but ultimately with a little consequence. Now imagine being stopped or detained by a police officer and going through a night of interrogation all because your name was flagged by an error or coincidence in a large scale algorithm. A concern that sounds eerily similar to a dystopian situation in Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother, in which the Department of Homeland Security begins detaining and interrogating thousands of innocent citizens because of flaws in their “terrorist detecting algorithm”.

I don’t think Officials of the Law should ignore explicitly concerning data about gun orders and suicide notes, but I do take issue with the extent data mining could influence the freedom in our speech, actions, and lives. When does venting on the internet end and threatening start? Morris makes valid points regarding the potential safety of the group, but sacrifices the independence of the individual.


Few Defining Moments in History

It is often said that history is decided in a few vital moments. Wether it be the second to second actions of a general that affect the outcome of a battle or the words of a politician delivering a vote swaying remark, large shifts in the course of history often have hidden catalysts. In Chapter 1 of The Code Book, Singh delves into the undetectable catalysts that resolved two of the most well known power struggle in history.

Singh begins by referring to Greece’s infamous defiance of the ravenously expanding Persian Empire. The Greek’s refusal to send gifts to Xerxes, the Persian King of Kings, ignited Persia’s secret assembly of “the greatest fighting force in history” in an effort to squash the display of insolence. Only by the heroics of an exiled Greek Demaratus and his use of stenography was Greece warned of the impending attack and able to fend off the invasion. As the reader begins to realize the small details behind influential historical stories, Singh’s opening quote from Chadwick (“The urge to discover secrets is deeply ingrained in human nature”) begins to ring true.

I believe, however, that it is Singh’s uncovering of the network of agents, codes, and spies involved in the popularized Babington Plot that most intrigues the reader and justifies why he used these specific examples. From the genius planning of legendary Spymaster Walsingham to the daring exploits of the Double Agent Gifford, Singh corrupts what the reader thought they knew to have happened leading up to the execution of Mary Queen of Scotts.

By revealing cryptography to be behind some of histories most famous power struggles, Singh effectively popularizes encryption and it’s far reaching influence from the shadows.



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