The History and Mathematics of Codes and Code Breaking

Author: sunils Page 1 of 2

Arguments Favouring Privacy

The debate between privacy and surveillance has been thoroughly explored over the course of this semester. I would like to point out some points I believe haven’t received due importance. In Citizenfour, it was revealed that the US government withheld information regarding the several programs which involved spying on its people, actively invading their privacy. This blatant disregard shows that the NSA doesn’t view the right to privacy as the paramount and essential right it is. By giving them the right to use electronic surveillance, we reinforce this wrong belief and the abuses to the people’s privacy will only intensify.

Secondly, I believe that the phrase “in the interest of national security ” is extremely ambiguous and while it seems fairly obvious what counts as national security, it can be easily misused since it will be used to justify hypothetical crimes. Also, if the primary reason for electronic surveillance is national security, it won’t be very effective since most situations involving national security are by foreign parties who would be aware of the locations with which the US has surveilling authority.

Lastly, it is important to consider the role played by privacy in our lives. Since privacy is primarily a natural right, it is hard to build legislation around it. In such cases, it is important to not give due importance to how it feels to lose privacy. People often argue that privacy is not as important as safety because they tend to poorly estimate the immense role played by their private space in their day to day life.



An Unconventional Podcast

In Radiolab’s Darkode episode, the producers use a number of innovative storytelling methods to grasp the audience’s attention. Firstly, there was little to no conversation between the host and the listener. The atmosphere was that of a casual interview with first a victim of Darkode’s criminal activities and later its creators. The hosts never actually added a direct opinion but did ask questions which at face value seemed to add humor to the podcast but also inspired contemplation. Additionally, the interview with the victim had a blend of profundity and humor while bringing about a sense of paranoia since it alluded to something so ubiquitous. Just the thought of having to pay a ransom to get to your own information which is (apparently) safely stored on your laptop makes you reconsider the faith you have in privacy. Also, the structure of the podcast gives us a whole 360 degree viewpoint of the issue and gives us a vast amount of information in simple, casual conversation. Finally, I believe the music selection and the background effects intensified the ideas and emotions expressed in the show. Most of the jokes were made from a cynical perspective and the choice of music gave us a better idea at what the producers wanted us to make of a line. To conclude, I would call Darkode an engaging, informative podcast with a different but effective production style.

The Ethics of Invading Privacy

“For example, even when two people happen to be sitting across from each other on the subway, social norms dictate that they should not stare at each other or insert themselves into the other’s conversations. Of course, people still do these things, but they also feel a social responsibility to avert their eyes and pretend that they cannot hear the conversation taking place. What’s at stake is not whether someone can listen in but whether one should”


I found this quote interesting because it was reminiscent of the discussion we had in class of using locks as a social cue for security. In danah boyd’s book It’s Complicated, she tries to highlight the distinction between the ability to violate privacy and consciously doing so. Given the degree of entanglement of our social lives and the internet, violating privacy is extremely easy. While taking steps to strengthen your privacy can be helpful, it is often futile either because it is difficult to implement effectively or because someone actively seeking to override your privacy could probably succeed by putting in enough effort. In such cases, it is better to define what is right or wrong and not keep much faith in the efficacy of privacy.

In her book, boyd gives the example of Christopher, a fifteen year old teenager who gave his social media passwords to his parents, trusting them not to violate his privacy. I feel this is somewhat the middle ground which finds a balance between what adults want and what teenagers desire. If we ignore intensive parenting for the moment, parents want their children to be safe and not be doing anything wrong, and teenagers want to be able to regulate which part of their lives their parents should see. By trusting them their your password,  teenagers can inspire confidence in their parents that they are not doing something unlawful while parents can feel like they have the means to protect their child. Additionally, giving access to parents breaks the false notion they hold that privacy is associated with wrongdoing.

The Need for using Strong Encryption

With the internet and its countless facilities constantly finding its way into our lives, it is getting more and more important to realize what we can trust it for and where it does more harm than good. Today, most of us think twice before we say something on the internet or before we share sensitive information online. Eventually, as our world gets more integrated with the digital world, it’ll only make keeping information offline harder. Having strong encryption available to the public would make it safe and inspire confidence in the system of digitization. Additionally, I would like to expand on the parallel drawn between gloves and encryption by Ron Rivest. While it seems that the parallel drawn might be too far fetched and that a pair of gloves cannot be compared to encryption, we are slowly approaching towards a world where encryption might just be as essential as a glove or a shoe. Any item can technically be used with malicious intent but it is important to weigh the pros and cons of the range of its utility. Just because the government can control whether encryption can be made ubiquitous should not change the utility or the need we have for it in our lives.

A Killer on the Loose

“A Killer on the Loose: The Zodiac Ciphers” gives an extensive history of the Zodiac Killer and the attempts of the officials at Vallejo at capturing him. I believe that the producers were successful in making a good podcast and kept a balance between the content and the theatrical aspects of it.

The title itself gives the impression of an interesting podcast and serves as a good hook for the audience. Additionally, the background music complements the eerie tone set by the podcast and betters the experience of the audience. The structure of the podcast is such that it seems like an interesting story but is also filled with information and facts which seems like a good way of sharing raw information without causing much boredom. To refer to an example, the segment about cracking the Zodiac cipher seemed to come right out of a dramatic movie but was filled with precise information on the cryptanalytical steps taken.

Finally, I also felt that the conclusion was done in manner that inspired the audience to look up the focus of the podcast. By mentioning different unlikely theories, the producer was able to spark an interest in the different theories behind the identity of the Zodiac Killer. All these factors contributed in making this podcast a good production.

Ethics Versus Strategy

I believe that the decision taken by Admiral William Hall was the right one, even though it was unethical. While it was morally wrong for him to let civilians die for a strategic gain, it was the right course of action to take for a man in his position. He was responsible for winning the war for his country. As an Admiral, he was first a patriot and then maybe a philanthropist. In an epoch of war, his loyalty and compassion was largely towards the citizens of his own country. He believed that the involvement of America in the World War was imminent which meant that giving them this telegram would bear no strategic advantage. Sacrificing a few civilian lives to potentially save several others over the course of the War by intercepting and decrypting German messages seemed like a good bargain to him.

The reason why the unethical choice in this case seemed to be the right choice was that he was in a situation where everyone else seemed to be lacking moral fiber. The Germans, his enemies in the War, were willing to attack civilians and break the rules set up by consensus in international court. To try to follow your conscience in a time of war will most likely cause you to the lose the war since a sense of self preservation always prevails over ethics.

The High Price of Safety

I believe that the whiteboard exhibition at the Newseum was nothing less than a work of art. While it appears to be a forum for people to share their viewpoints, it also shows the array of opinions held by different people with different mindsets. Just in the given display, we see one person uncomfortable with sharing his location and personal texts while another finds it reasonable for the government to go through his phone records and texts. Another still uses a quote to imply that giving up your privacy for security makes you unworthy of both privacy and security. Such conflicting viewpoints serve to be an illustration of just how difficult it can be to find a reasonable compromise.

To answer the question asked by the display, I feel that I am comfortable with giving the government as much information as they need as long as it bears no repercussion in my day to day life. If the the government can guarantee that the information will remain confidential, I don’t see why I should be bothered about a stranger going through my phone records. The only flaw I see in adopting the aforementioned approach is the implications of the false positives. Given the current state of technology and surveillance, the number of false positives generated would cause a majority of people to face intervention by the government even when they are innocent. This can be problematic as it directly counters the ideas of safety and security since these victims can feel targeted by the very government they chose to protect them.



The Race Between Cryptanalysis and Encryption

The status quo of cryptography can be accurately represented by a game of tennis between two equally good players. When a strong cipher is developed, the ball moves to cryptanalysis. Upon development of better decryption techniques, the ball returns back to the court of the encryptors. The period in which an event happens in the world of cryptography is heavily influenced by who has the power between cryptanalysis and encryption.

During the time of Mary Queen of Scots, the users of cryptography had little to no faith in the abilities to decrypt, causing them to have  undue faith on their abilities to encrypt. By not giving sufficient credit to cryptanalysis, they did not bother with either reinforcing the difficulty of the cipher  or any sort of counter measures in case the cipher was broken, leaving them in a worse position had they chosen not to encrypt. On the other hand, the situation before the Vigenère cipher was the exact opposite as the strength of any cipher was presumed to be weak. Encryptors were motivated to fortify their ciphers and even after encryption, they would communicate in  ways that would seem senseless without context. Some would even avoid cryptography altogether and find other ways to convey the desired message.

I also believe that during the period of Mary Queen of Scots, cryptography itself was fairly new and unheard of. This meant that almost no one had any idea how to encrypt (and naturally, decrypt) ciphers. After cryptography became more popular, more people explored the avenue and cipher breaking became more ubiquitous. This was another reason for encryptors to strive to strengthen their ciphers.

The Nature of Cryptography

In Cory Doctorow’s novel “Little Brother”, the passage which resonated with me the most was the one on page 57 where Marcus had just given up his phone password to Carrie Johnstone. In this passage, he begins to explain the essence of cryptography and the reason why it stood out the most was that in that one short passage, he went over almost everything that we have done in historical aspect of our cryptography class.

Firstly, he touches upon the fact that cryptography  used by the common man is just as strong as the one used by the National Security Agency. This is representative of the progress we’ve made as compared to the cryptography used by Mary Queen of Scots, a topic we discussed in detail as the first chapter of Simon Singh’s “The Code Book”. In that chapter, we see how niche cryptography was and more so cryptanalysis whereas now it is a ubiquitous phenomenon, very often taken for granted.

Secondly, Marcus talks about how his privacy was in question, again something we have deliberated on as we weighed out the balance between public safety and privacy. Reading between the lines, it is also seen that when it comes to cryptography, having enough resources can always crack the code, regardless of the ethics of the means you use to do so. Just like in the San Bernardino’s case, the FBI found a way to get past the encryption, the DHS were able to pressure Marcus into giving up his own privacy, which begs the question that in an absolute sense, can anything ever be kept completely secret?

Finally, Marcus asserts that the best means of measuring the efficacy of an encryption is its prevalence. This argument runs parallel to the ideas of Joseph Bramah’s challenge as explained in “Perfect Security-99 Percent Invisible” where he  explains the mechanism behind it and still exacts the public to try and open it. The fact that his lock was not picked for a substantial period of time reinforces the level of security it provided to its user.

The Price We Must Pay For Safety

To set the premise of my argument, I would like to quote Cory Doctorow in his novel “Little Brother” where he uses the phrase ” The truth is I had everything to hide, and nothing”. I feel this statement expresses the thought that we all have our “dark secrets”, so to say, which are inconsequential in the grand scheme of things. However, we would not feel safe if someone were to suddenly be aware of these secrets. Drawing from this idea, I trust that data mining is a viable option provided that the inputted data remains confidential and that only algorithms and computing (not physical analysis by other humans) be used to read the data.

I firmly believe that most people only have a problem with surveillance if it has direct (or indirect) consequences in their daily lives. Taking into consideration that it is in human nature to judge while simultaneously avoid judgement, having people monitor other people, especially the ones they might have to interact on a daily basis i.e faculty surveilling students, might cause a lot of gratuitous paranoia. It is a harsh reality that absolute privacy and complete public safety cannot be achieved together and a bit of compromise has to be made at both ends depending on the situation. In our case, I believe privacy gets the shorter end of the stick. Firstly, the age group in schools is far more likely to be swayed into committing something horrific because they are more emotionally volatile. Secondly, the victims might include young, promising students. Lastly, we must not forget that while campus violence severely affects those party to it, it affects everyone on campus as well, broadcasting a sense of hatred and danger which tarnishes the protective atmosphere an institution is supposed to have.

To conclude, I reaffirm that I agree with ideas portrayed in the essay while setting certain parameters to them which might make it an easier sell. Public safety is essential while a certain degree of privacy must be reserved. It is up to us to come to a consensus on where to draw the line depending on the scenario.

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