Cryptography

The History and Mathematics of Codes and Code Breaking

Author: Julius Tabery

Nothing to Fear but Fear Itself

In Little Brother, Marcus, the main character, frequently argues with his father over the matter of whether we should give up some of our personal freedoms and privacies in order to grant more power to those seeking to prevent harm from threats like terrorism. It's a difficult debate that I have occasionally had with myself, and I've never quite come to a conclusion, but in one of those arguments, Marcus raises a great point: are we really hurting the terrorists by adding security?

The main goal of terrorism is there in the name: terror. They want to scare people-- to make them feel unsafe. That's why their attacks always come in such violent and public forms. One terrorist organization cannot possibly hope to kill each and every citizen of the United States of America, but they could quite possibly make us all fear for our lives.

Marcus's point is this: by adding more checkpoints, more data mining, more tracking, more security, less privacy, are we really acting against the terrorists? Would you really feel safer if the police considered you a potential terrorist and had eyes, ears, and possibly guns pointed in your direction at all times? If they consider you and everyone you know a suspect, then you yourself might begin to suspect those around you.

Suddenly, everyone you see on the street is a potential murderer.

Suddenly, you aren't sure if you should eat at a particular restaurant because there aren't any open seats near the door. What if someone inside started shooting?

Suddenly, you have to think long and hard about accepting a job offer because you would have to take the subway on your commute. Sure, the pay is better, but what if a bomb went off while you were underground?

In an effort to prevent terrorist attacks, law enforcement can inadvertently carry out the end goal of those attacks: terror.

 

The Crystal Ball is Cloudy

Michael Morris makes the argument that, through mining student data, examining the digital footprints left by students in their day-to-day lives, universities could prevent violence from occurring on campus. This belief is founded on the idea that students intending to commit violence might leave some evidence of their bad intentions in their online actions. Morris rightly suggests that, if a student has shown strong negative opinions on a particular professor, shopped online for weaponry, and has drafted a suicide note, there is cause for concern.

Morris provides many examples of the added security from student violence that the practice of data mining would provide, but neglects to address in detail the privacy concerns that opening up this information to university authorities introduces. While many of the arguments Morris makes are valid, the article generally seems overly optimistic toward the idea of student data mining. It glosses over concerns of privacy, and of false accusations. Morris uses the example of credit card companies tracking spending behavior to detect fraud. This is a practice I support, as, frequently, it can prevent the owner of the card from having money fraudulently taken away, but credit card companies are not one hundred percent accurate. Sometimes, the owner of the card gets their purchase declined because the credit card company misidentifies suspicious spending habits. In the case of credit card companies, this is fine, as the owner of the card can simply inform the company that there was no fraudulent spending, and the matter is resolved. However, in the case of student terrorist activity, the stakes are much higher. If a student's actions are falsely identified as those of a future murderer, that student can potentially have their life permanently altered by false accusations.

While I have my criticisms of the viewpoints expressed in this article, I do not necessarily completely disagree with it. The issue is a complex one, and I don't believe that there is one correct answer that one can address all of the different concerns and competing priorities when making decisions on whether or not to go forward with mining student data. It's a complicated question that would take much more than 400 words to even begin to try to answer.

Nothing to Hide

Chapter one of Simon Singh’s The Code Book begins with two stories. The first one is about Mary Queen of Scots and the second one is about Demaratus, an exiled Greek who nevertheless worked to communicate secretly with his homeland. While both of their stories were told to establish a theme of secret writing, the two stories have very little else in common. 

Demaratus’s story is one of a brave and cunning man who, upon learning of a Persian plot against his homeland, found a way to conceal the existence of his message so it could reach its destination safely. His heroics allowed the Greeks to prepare a fleet to meet the advance of Xerxes’s fleet and defend themselves from an attack that would otherwise have caught them completely off guard. Demaratus’s successful use of steganography, the act of concealing the existence of a message, allowed him to save Greece from a major military defeat. 

The story of Mary Queen of Scots did not end as pleasantly for Mary as Demaratus’s did for the Greeks. Mary had concealed her message using cryptography rendering it unreadable to those who did not have the cipher, rather than by hiding its existence in the first place. The fate of her life hung, not on whether or not her message would be discovered, for it already had been, but rather on whether it could be deciphered. Her encrypted message was, unfortunately for her, in the hands of a man named Thomas Phelippes, one of the finest cryptanalysts of his day. He eventually succeeded in decrypting the message and laid bare a plot by Mary to assassinate Queen Elizabeth and take the English throne. She was relieved of her head shortly thereafter. 

There are several differences between these two stories. Obviously, one story sees the message successfully and discreetly transported to its intended audience, while the other one has the message discovered and decrypted. In addition, the British one is likely more factual, as it is based on historical data and physical records, rather than the legends and folklore that likely drive much of Heroditus’s account of Demaratus. Finally, the type of secret writing involved varies between the two. In the Ancient Greek story, Demaratus used steganography to conceal the existence of his message whereas Queen Mary of Scots relied on cryptography to keep the contents of her message a secret even once the message had been discovered.

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