The History and Mathematics of Codes and Code Breaking

Author: vanryzlg

Surveillance protects our children



All American citizens are entitled to their privacy. It must be remembered, however, that any electronic privacy granted to citizens is also granted to who Singh calls the “Four Horsemen of the Infocalypse – drug dealers, organized crime, terrorists, and pedophiles”. Because of this, all citizens should be more than willing to give up a little privacy to protect their families, neighbors, friends, and all citizens.

CC image courtesy of Lunar New Year on Flickr

CC image courtesy of Lunar New Year on Flickr

Imagine you have a child. Imagine they were being targeted by an online pedophile. This pedophile is making disgusting comments to your child and trying to persuade them to meet.If you are like most people, you would probably contact the police or do something similar in an attempt to catch this person that is targeting your child. Now imagine that the police tell you that there is nothing they can do about it at the moment because they are required to protect the electronic privacy of citizens.

Many proponents of electronic privacy are worried about what the government is reading of theirs. This is just evidence of the geocentricism of Americans. As scandalous of a life you think you lead, the government really doesn’t care unless you are plotting something that endangers the country. By insisting on your privacy to keep your gossip or your secret online relationship hidden, you’re stopping the government from potentially preventing mass shootings or terrorist attacks or even child abductions. 

Brawn over brains


It cannot be denied that the brilliant minds at Bletchley park were necessary to the success of the code breaking. However, all of their work would’ve been null if they didn’t have the money and resources to build or run the machines they needed. For this reason, the “brute force” was one of the most important factors to Allied success.

The Polish were the first to figure out a way to crack the enigma cipher. They were able to build the machines they needed to use brute force to decipher the messages. Everything was going great for them until the Germans added more elements to the Enigma Machine, meaning the Polish would’ve needed more machines to continue their processes. They simply didn’t have the resources to make that happen. That’s when they shared their findings with larger Allied forces. Bletchley Park was able to create all the machines necessary to continue cracking the codes, and had the manpower to run the machines as well.

Later on in Bletchley Park the intelligence was key to continuing to crack the codes, once the Germans fixed some of their “human error” mistakes, like repeating the day code. At this point, pure brute force was not enough to read the messages. Prior to this, though, brute force was the key element to deciphering the German messages.

The Paradox of a False Positive

As I was reading Little Brother, there was actually a passage that made me stop reading and reread and think about it for a while. This really never happens to me so I figured it was something I should take note of. This was the passage that talked about the paradox of a false positive. What this means is that if you are testing for something very rare in a sample population, like terrorists or people who have contracted Super AIDS, as the book says, then the test accuracy must match the rarity of whatever the case you’re trying to look at. This reminded me of when we looked at the idea of data mining students to search for potential of suicide or mass shootings and the like. At the time, we simply talked about the ethics of looking into a students private data, but the efficiency and accuracy is a huge part of this too. Many college students at times will feel depressed or overwhelmed, and may search things that could potential be a red flag for the data mining for suicide. Similarly, I think a lot of people, myself included, are sometimes just curious about weird things that could seem like a red flag for mass violence, like how to make a bomb and stuff like that. If the schools took the time to look into all students that raised a red flag for suspicious behavior, they would be wasting so much of their time, and they could potentially miss real risks because of their focus on these non-risky individuals.

Be vague and Roman Numerals

After the execution of Mary Queen of Scots but prior to the development of more complex ciphers, like the Vigenère cipher, “anybody sending an encrypted message had to accept that an expert enemy codebreaker might intercept and decipher their most precious secrets.” (Singh, p. 45) Because of this, it is safe to assume people writing the encrypted messages would still be very careful with what they were actually saying, and how the things that they wrote could potentially incriminate them. Messages would have been written in vague enough language that even if the text were to be deciphered, the cryptanalysts would either not be able to tell what the exact plan was or, even if they could figure it out, would not be obvious enough to be used in a court of law. (I don’t know how the rules for this worked in that time but today people can claim the way a message is interpreted is completely wrong.)

Going off in a completely different direction now, as I was reading I was thinking of different types of ciphers. When I the name Louis XIV, I fixated on the Roman Numerals. It made me curious about the use of Roman Numerals in cipher alphabets. I think it would add a layer of complexity because the cryptanalysts would have to try to figure out which combinations of letters would represent a number, and then which letter was represented by that number. One weakness, however, would be that it would be very easily identifiable as Roman Numerals because of the small number of letters used in Roman Numerals. I tried to look up Roman Numeral ciphers but nothing came up on a quick Google search.

Do your research

I think the best advice for college students using the internet is to just be aware of the amount of privacy you have. I know there are many of us who think they are perfectly safe on the internet because their profiles are set as private, and they don’t post about where they are going to be and they only talk about personal issues on secure, private messages, and they don’t post their private photos onto the internet. Issues with their privacy can be found quite quickly with a little bit of research. The article “The 5 Biggest Online Privacy Threats of 2013”, for examples, tells us that your phone stores the location each picture is taken on, and unless you turn this off or remove this information, anyone on the internet can get this information from the photos you post. Also, as we have seen recently with the big celebrity leak, even the data on your phone can be retrieved without access to your phone, as this information is stored in a cloud database. Emails and your messages on social media, as private as they seem, can be accessed by the NSA and if they see fit. While I know the average college student isn’t really doing anything on their email that would be of interest to the NSA, the fact that they have access shows that other people could gain access if they really wanted to. The article “5 Essential Privacy Tools for the Next Crypto War” is a great resource for college students as it gives simple, more secure encrypted alternatives for file sharing, emailing, and messaging services that you don’t need to be tech savvy or computer whizzes to use. These small steps could help all of us avoid embarrassing leaks of personal information or stealing of data from our computers.

Blog Post #1

What surprised me most in the first chapter of this text was just how old cryptography is. I guess I had never really thought about it’s origins before the reading. I thought it was really interesting to learn of the origins and to begin learning some history. It made me draw come comparisons to cryptography today. Cryptography really has come a long way since Queen Mary used it from her jail cell. Although it’s incredibly unlikely that a ruling leader would ever be held in jail by another, if the situation would arise, and they needed to use cryptography, it would happen quite differently. First of all, I think they would have a better understanding of the likelihood of the messages being intercepted and broken, and would not use such plain terms to describe their plan. Mary and Babington’s foolishness reminded me of in middle school, a group of girls would speak in pig latin, thinking nobody else could understand them. Unfortunately for them, many people also knew of this “secret” language, and those who didn’t quickly caught on. Another advancement is simply the difficulty of the cipher that would be used today. In this day and age, a simple substitution cipher, like the one used by Mary and Babington, would be deciphered in minutes. To really keep something private, a much more advanced and complicated cipher would be needed.

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