The History and Mathematics of Codes and Code Breaking

Author: tsais

The Need for Privacy Creates a Facade

In It’s Complicated, author danah boyd says, “Issues emerge when teens start to deceive in order to keep the truth private.  But by and large, when teens share to create a sense of privacy, they are simply asserting agency in a social context in which their power is regularly undermined.  The most common way that this unfolds is when teens systematically exclude certain information from what is otherwise a rich story” (75).  Boyd explains that to maintain a certain level of privacy, some teens feel the need to share snippets of their lives on social media, in order to evade questions from their friends.  However, this pressure to share often leads teens hide other, darker parts of their lives.

boyd uses the example of lesbian, gay, or transgender teens who create online profiles that make them appear straight or abused teens who share “extravagant stories” to hide the truth of what is really going on at home.  I was deeply affected by this passage because of an event that occurred last January.  A female distance runner, a girl I had known from high school, committed suicide.  She had been attending the University of Pennsylvania and was a member of the cross country and track teams.  After her death, discussion surrounding her use of social media to hide her pain spread.  Her Instagram account featured photos of her with teammates, smiling and having fun.  Her final post, which was posted just an hour before her death, was a picture of christmas lights in a park.  These photos created an image of a happy college-girl.  Based on her social media posts, one would never be aware of the struggles that she was facing.

The culture surrounding social media in modern day society is one of controversy.  Adults argue that teens are sharing too much, while teens, on the contrary, limit what they post with the hopes of maintaining privacy.  The desire to have privacy leads teens to create a false online persona, skewing the image of their reality.  Sharing the best aspects of one’s life has become a social norm.  The pressure to share simultaneously generates the pressure to hide.

There’s Always Someone Smarter

A passage from Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother that caught my attention was “[t]he problem had been that Turing was smarter than the guy who thought up Enigma.  Any time you had a cipher, you were vulnerable to someone smarter than you coming up with a way of breaking it (99).”  It first caught my attention because we just recently discussed World War II and Bletchley Park, where Alan Turing broke Enigma.  Second, when Marcus, the main character of the novel, said “you were vulnerable to someone smarter than you coming up with a way of breaking it,” I was reminded of the several in-class discussions about always assuming your cipher is breakable.

Throughout history, there have been several instances where cipher makers have been overconfident in the security of their ciphers.  For example, in the 16th century, Mary Queen of Scots employed a substitution cipher, using numbers and symbols.  Unfortunately for her, she placed too much confidence in both her cipher and her contacts, and by the use of frequency analysis, her cipher was broken, and her plot to escape imprisonment and murder Queen Elizabeth I was unveiled.  In 1587, Mary Queen of Scots was executed.

Another example of cipher overconfidence came from the Germans during WWII.  Their Enigma was incredibly secure, so naturally the Germans assumed that it was unbreakable.  However, the British had a team of highly intelligent mathematicians on their side, including Alan Turing, who discovered a flaw in Enigma, and was therefore able to break it.  He created a machine called a “bombe” that was able to break the daily German Enigma key.  The Germans were unknowingly sending intercepted and decipherable messages.  Their overconfidence in their cipher led to their ultimate downfall.

Overconfidence in one’s security plays a large role in Little Brother.  With the Department of Homeland Security monitoring nearly everything from transportation routes to Internet usage, Marcus and his friends were in serious need of ciphers and codes to protect their privacy.  Marcus learns early on that with every bright idea, there exists another that is better.  Most likely, there is always someone who’s smarter.

The Navajo Code Talkers

A major reason for the Allied success during World War I was German overconfidence in the Enigma.  Because of their overconfidence, they were unaware that the British were deciphering their messages.  Although this played a large role, it is not the sole cause for the victory of the Allies.  In order to win the war, the Allies also had to have some defenses of their own.  One of these defenses came in the form of code.  The United States was in need for an impenetrable code so that its communications could be secure.  The answer came in the form of the Navajo, a Native American tribe.

The Navajo language is incredibly complex; it is unique and does not stem from any other language.  Singh quotes Philip Johnston, the mastermind behind using the Navajo language as code, “the Navajo tribal dialect is completely unintelligible to all other tribes and all other people.”  The United States government employed 420 Navajo code talkers.  With these code talkers, the United States had a secure means of communication, which allowed for them to prevent disasters from happening and anticipate potential threats.  After the war, the Japanese even admitted that they had not made a dent in breaking the Navajo code.

Having a secure code is vitally important.  This is evidenced by the German failure to keep a secure code.  Once the British had broken the Enigma, German communications were readily available to the Allies.  This allowed for the Allied forces to gain the upper hand.  On the other hand, with the United States having a secure code, the Allies were able to communicate without fear of German or Japanese decipherment.  The Germans and Japanese may have been able to intercept the messages, but without knowledge of the Navajo language, decipherment was essentially impossible.

Unsolved Codes and Ciphers

While exploring Elonka Dunin’s website, I came across her list of “Famous Unsolved Codes and Ciphers.”  I thought that this section was particularly interesting because we have read about some of the ciphers or codes in class, and it fascinates me that despite the copious amount of technological and historical resources that we have at our hands, impenetrable ciphers and codes still exist.

Elonka ranked the unsolved codes and ciphers based on their “fame,” which she determined by how many times they appeared in articles or how many “hits” they had on Google.  The first cipher she listed was the Beale Cipher, which we read about in The Code Book by Simon Singh.  The Beale Ciphers include three documents that detail the location of a secret treasure, which according to Singh is worth $20 million by today’s standards.  One of the papers has been solved, which is how knowledge of this hidden treasure first came about; however, the other two papers, which apparently hold the secret to the treasure’s location, remain unsolved.

We discussed in class how despite the Beale cipher’s impenetrability, its mystery provides incredible intrigue for cryptographers.  The desire to crack the cipher will live on for some time.  Elonka says on her website that there have been many “claimed solutions” (which she provides a link to), as well as speculation that the entire thing is a hoax.  Both were points brought up in class, and I thought it was really interesting to see firsthand accounts, provided by Elonka, of individuals attempting to break the cipher.

At the bottom of the page, Elonka also includes a list of “Famous Unsolved Codes That Have Since Been Solved.”  It is fascinating that codes and ciphers that were once determined impenetrable were later solved.  I believe that this is the reason why many still have hope for ciphers such as the Beale Cipher.  If Edgar Allen Poe’s Cryptographic Challenge ciphers were broken after 150 years, why can’t the Beale Cipher?

The Truth Behind the Zimmerman Telegram

In 1917, during the height of World War I, the British intercepted a German telegram (the Zimmermann Telegram) that was meant for the Mexican government.  The Germans called for unrestricted submarine warfare, which violated a previous agreement with the United States, and proposed that if Mexico invaded the United States, Mexico would receive United States territory at the end of the war.

In high school history classes, we are told that as soon the British caught word of this duplicitous German telegram, the United States’ government was immediately notified.  However, as Singh explains in the third chapter of The Code Book, the British initially withheld the information, at the potential cost of American lives due to unrestricted submarine warfare, in order to protect the cryptographic advancements of the British.  At first, I thought that the actions of the British were wrong.  The lives of innocent people were on the line.  Yet, I realize that from a broader perspective, the move to protect British cryptographic intelligence was ethical and necessary, because in the end, it led to the demise of the Germans and to the end of the war.

If the British had immediately informed the American government of the Zimmermann Telegram, chances are the United States would have publicly condemned Germany for its actions.  The success of the British codebreakers would have become known, and the Germans would have realized that their ciphers would need improving.  Had the Germans known this, they could have created a better, more impenetrable cipher, and the Allies would have been back at square one.  Since the Germans were unaware that their cipher had been broken (they believed that the Mexican government had handed over the telegram to the United States), the Allies had an upper hand, because they now knew the German code.

Overall, the British decision was ethical, because in the grand scheme of the war, more lives were saved by defeating the Germans than lives that would have been lost from unrestricted submarine warfare.  By protecting British cryptographic intelligence, Germany was blindsided and fell behind in their cryptographic advancements.  Because of this, Germany lost yet another advantage in the war.

Safety versus privacy: what’s more important?

In a devastating massacre on the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech) campus in 2007, a total of 33 lives were lost.  Aside from the calamitous loss of lives, one of the most saddening aspects of the tragedy is that it could have been prevented.

In the article “Mining Student Data Could Save Lives,” author Michael Morris explains that universities have the ability to access student emails, student internet searches, and student social media accounts through a process called “data mining.”  By searching through this information, university officials can predict student behavior and prevent on-campus violence.

I plan to write my paper on Morris’ article because as a college student, much of what Morris explains strongly pertains to me and my peers.  I find his article very interesting because both sides of the argument (safety versus privacy) hold compelling arguments.  I hope to explore each side with the goal of determining which is more important.  Student concerns about Internet privacy (even privacy of one’s own personal email) are very legitimate, however, university officials’ interest in protecting the student body as a whole may be paramount.


The Evolution of Ciphers and the Human Mind

Over two thousand years ago, Julius Caesar’s methods of secret keeping were deemed groundbreaking.  His use of the substitution shift cipher was effective and secure.  Today, however, many would find his seemingly indestructible cipher to be elementary.

Like most human inventions, codes and ciphers have constantly evolved over the years to become more complicated and much more difficult to break.  Because of this advancement, what were once the world’s best ciphers and codes thousands of years ago have become simple puzzles that high schoolers, even middle schoolers, can deconstruct.

According to the author of The Code Book, Simon Singh, “[c]ryptanalysis could not be invented until a civilization had reached a sufficiently sophisticated level of scholarship” (Singh, 15).  The Muslim civilization achieved this heightened academic prowess due to its emphasis on being well-rounded, insightful humans.  Citizens studied a wide range of subjects, “including mathematics, statistics and linguistics” (Singh, 15).  Europeans, conversely, were stuck in the Dark Ages, unable to pursue the high scholastic level of the Islamic civilization.  While the Arabs were creating new ciphers and breaking old ones, Europe was far behind.

The Arabs had a significant advantage over the Europeans due to their overall knowledge of various subjects.  Similarly, humans today have an advantage over the Muslim civilization.  The ciphers that the Arabs were creating and breaking were much simpler than the ciphers are today, and after studying history and learning of ciphers and codes from old times, people today are able to easily decrypt old ciphers and codes.  Presently, individuals do not have to be trained in cryptanalysis because subjects such as mathematics and statistics are available to the average citizen.  Society today focuses almost entirely on “secular subjects” (Singh, 16), which is what led to the success of the Muslims.  People today also have greater opportunities to learn and have learned from history, so we are able to combat difficult problems, specifically ciphers, on our own, using past methodology, logic, creativity, and luck.

The evolution of the cipher is directly connected to the expansion of the human mind.  Substitution ciphers that were used by Julius Caesar are now commonly recognized and easy to decipher.  People today have a much more extensive knowledge of ciphers and codes, making the ciphers and codes easier to figure out.  As humans continue to advance, so will ciphers and codes and the means to breaking them.


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