The History and Mathematics of Codes and Code Breaking

Author: wangs29 Page 1 of 2

Why Privacy is Needed

The US Government should not be given wide latitude to use electronic surveillance on its citizens. The government cites national security as the reasoning behind surveillance, but often times, national surveillance is not even effective in keeping the country safe or preventing terrorist attacks. In 2013, the President’s Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies analyzed terrorism cases from 2001 and onward. They found that the NSA’s phone record collection was “not essential to preventing attacks.” The idea of surveilling the entire population to find terrorists has been equated to finding a needle in a haystack because terrorists are so rare and the vast majority of people are innocent.

The government employing surveillance methods on the population also infringes upon American and human rights. The need for surveillance implies that citizens are all potentially guilty, rather than innocent until proven guilty. The presumption of innocence has been declared as an international human right by the United Nations. In addition, the Fourth Amendment states that without probable cause, law enforcement is not allowed to search an area or seize any items or people. The government does not have probable cause to look into our online history, yet they continue to do so.

Privacy Rights

When discussing the argument that “I have nothing to hide so surveillance isn’t really an issue for me,” Chris Gilliard brought up an interesting point, stating plainly: that’s simply not how rights work.

I never really comprehended the fuss over privacy. Why is it a big deal for a big corporation or government to look at what we’re doing. If you have nothing to hide, who cares and why should it matter? Gilliard really helped broaden my perspective on the topic. I now understand the faultiness of that logic. For example, with the First Amendment, the United States’ Bill of Rights grants citizens freedom of speech, press, assembly, religion, and petition. Using the same argument people often use against privacy and applying it to something like speech, it becomes rather ridiculous. “I have nothing bad to say about the government, so I don’t have a problem with my speech and writing being restricted.”

Rights are the fundamental rules are humans are owed in life, and according to our societal values, privacy is one of these rights.

The Publicity of Social Media

“In other words, when participating in networked publics, many participants embrace a widespread public-by-default, private-through-effort mentality… By focusing on what to keep private rather than what to publicize, teens often inadvertently play into another common rhetorical crutch—the notion that privacy is necessary only for those who have something to hide. Indeed, many teens consciously seek out privacy when they’re trying to restrict access to a narrower audience either out of respect or out of fear.”

I disagree with Boyd’s assertion of public-by-default, private-through-effort and that teenagers have to make a conscious choice on what to make private online rather than public, supporting the belief that privacy isn’t needed if you have nothing to hide. When you post something to social media, you are making a conscious choice to post said thing. I believe the opposite: the default is actually private, and it takes effort to make that post public. As a result, I would say most teenagers take quite a bit of time to think about what photos they are going to show to their follows prior to posting. No one is going to post a picture of themselves without assessing how they look in it first. Many of the forms of social media communication Boyd includes in the chapter are pretty much extremely obsolete and outdated to a certain extent: blogging, posting on friends’ Facebook walls, status updates, basically the use of Facebook as a whole.

Private social media is not an indication of someone having something to hide. Private social media is also usually not created out of respect or fear. Many people  do not want strangers looking at photos of them and their friends, hence making an Instagram account public. In addition, I rarely post on my Snapchat story, not because I’m committing crimes, but because I understand that the majority of my followers do not care about what is happening in my life. If I wanted to share something, I would share it with my friends on my private story.

I think that Boyd’s assessment of social media in teens isn’t totally applicable to the current young adult generation as it is out-of-date. Despite the book only being published 5 years ago, social media use changes so rapidly that many apps and websites once widely-used fall out of popularity extremely quickly. I can think of several apps that were popular 5 years ago in middle school (Kik, Vine, Omegle, Tumblr, etc.) that no one uses anymore because they have been shut down or aren’t trendy or fun any longer. It’s not only the types of social media platforms that are constantly changing, but the way social media is used. Perhaps 5 or 10 years ago, it was common to post song lyrics to your hundreds of Facebooks friends, but that is simply not the case anymore. Teens today generally find people to share too much on social media as weird or annoying.

Lastly, I think it will be close to impossible for an adult to understand teen social media use and culture unless he or she is fully immersed in the experience (which the majority are not). There are so many facets to how we use social media that you can’t get the whole picture just through research or interviewing someone. It could honestly be equated to a foreign country’s culture or language: no matter how much studying you do, you can’t completely understand it unless you’re a part of it.

Encryption for the People

I enjoyed seeing Singh present arguments for both sides of the issue on if strong encryption should be available to the general public or not. One of the claims that I thought was particularly strong was the comparison of strong encryption to gloves. Singh included a quote by Ron Rivest, one of the inventors of RSA, which states, “It is poor policy to clamp down indiscriminately on a technology just because some criminals might be able to use it to their advantage. For example, any US citizen can freely buy a pair of gloves, even thought a burglar might use them to ransack a house without leaving fingerprints.” I thought this assertion brought up an excellent point: criminals can use basically any non-harmful thing to their advantage, so why outlaw said thing for every day people? In addition, guns are legal, despite them being extremely dangerous for non-criminals and criminals alike. Why would someone advocate for firearm accessibility, yet consider encryption dangerous because it could keep criminal communication secret?

Another argument I thought was compelling in support of encryption availability was the notion that businesses require strong encryption for online commerce.  The Code Book was written in 1999. Today, e-commerce has reached a size far greater than Singh’s world 20 years ago. With this fact, it is more important than ever to have secure online encryption as so many purchases are done through the Internet. Consumers don’t want their credit card information stolen, and businesses don’t want their customer databases hacked. If strong encryption wasn’t available to the public, no one would want to conduct business online, which would be disastrous for today’s economy.

Math and Codes

There were many mathematical concepts related to modern cryptography introduced in this chapter. One topic I was familiar with already was the use of binary digits and modular arithmetic because we had learned about them in class. However, I was not aware of modular arithmetic prior to taking this course and I had only the most basic understanding of binary numbers. I still do not have much knowledge on either topic beyond an elementary level. For example, I was confused by the idea of the Y^x (mod P) function. I do not really understand how it works and how it relates to encryption and communication. I am not sure if this speaks to Singh’s ability (or lack of ability) to explain technical mathematical topics, or my ability (or lack of ability) to understand technical mathematical topics through words rather than examples and someone showing me how they work.

I was also confused about the concept of the mangler function as what the mangler function is exactly was never elaborated upon in the chapter. However, this might be because the function is too complicated or complex for the average individual to understand, so Singh didn’t even bother trying to break it down. I think Singh does a so-so job explaining the more technical sides to cryptography throughout his book, not just this chapter. Some explanations make sense, such as in the first chapter when he introduces the different types of historical ciphers. Others have me completely lost, such as his explanation for how the enigma machine functions. (I still don’t understand how it works!) I understand it is very difficult to explain such advanced and complex concepts to people with no knowledge on the topic, and this will be important to keep in mind when explaining how our cipher works for our podcasts.

Women and Codes

With American men deployed overseas for WWII, women were expected to uphold the battle on the home front. This task involved recruiting women for jobs that traditionally would have gone to men, such as code-breaking and cryptanalysis. The women involved in the operations at Arlington Hall were sworn to secrecy. Thus, many of their tremendous and important contributions to the war went unnoticed until decades after peace had been made. Even when the Code Girls were allowed to speak of their roles in the war, many people did not believe them, or simply did not care.

After the war, most of the Arlington Hall girls moved on to other professions. During the Cold War era, women were expected to take on a more domestic character, returning to traditional roles in the home and taking care of a household and children. Having a professional occupation was seen as stealing jobs from men, and large, government run childcare was considered Communist. Despite the women’s intelligence, education promised by the GI Bill was given priority to men who fought on the field.

Despite these circumstances, Arlington Hall provided an opportunity for women to showcase their skills to the world. The Code Girls represented the large intellectual potential females possessed, which had frequently been ignored previously in history.

J’accuse You of Creating a Good Podcast

The podcast on the Panizzardi Telegram caught my attention as I had learned about the Dreyfus Affair in high school and was interested in the topic. Prior to listening to the podcast, I was unaware of the telegram and the role encryption had in the case.

I enjoyed the beginning of the podcast, as the producer used second-person narrative to hook listeners into the situation at hand. This introduction enticed me to keep listening to the podcast, wondering what would happen next.

Throughout the podcast, the producer did a fantastic job incorporating background music. I liked how the music fit with the tone and mood of each part of the story. The music was not loud enough to be distracting, yet audible enough so there wasn’t just radio silence behind his voice. I also like how he added in sound effects, such as a crowd of people yelling when discussing protests at the trial. These additions helped liven up the podcast and keep it from being dull, and I will definitely be using music and sounds in my podcast as well.

I disliked the section in the middle of the podcast where the elements of the Panizzardi Telegram were explained. In the producer’s defense, he most likely had to break down how the cipher worked to meet the criteria for the assignment, but the dry explanations went on for a little too long and seemed out of place between the exciting narrative of the Dreyfus affair. Perhaps he could have shortened this section and/or somehow incorporated it with the story, such as adding in examples from the Telegram when describing the encryption style.

I also thought the podcaster’s voice was a little monotonous and quiet and could have been more exciting, but maybe that’s just his voice and something he can’t change.

All in all, I enjoyed listening to the podcast and definitely learned something new. I would like to make my future podcast with a narrative, story-like style as well. I will also try to make my voice more varied, but that is probably easier said than done.

Wartime Measures

It’s important to take into account the circumstances of a situation. In times of war, different standards are often applied to domestic and foreign policy as countries are working in their best interests to defend their home front. In terms of the Zimmerman telegram, I think it was a strategic move for Britain to not reveal its contents to President Wilson. Had Britain not kept the information in the telegram a secret, Germany would have discovered that their communication system had been cracked. As a result, they would have come up with a stronger, more secure, method of encryption, making it much harder for the Allies to intercept their messages. In turn, it is possible that the Great War would have continued for much longer, and more lives would have been lost in the end.

Despite the United States claiming a policy of neutrality, it was obvious they were supporting the Allies. The British knew the Americans were on their side. Because of this unspoken alliance, I believe that if the United States were truly in a path of immense crisis presented by unrestricted U-boat warfare, the British would have notified President Wilson. Because the dangers presented weren’t catastrophic, it was a good choice for the British to keep their knowledge to themselves.

The Panopticon as a Faulty Metaphor

Philosopher Jeremy Bentham came up with the idea of the Panopticon: a prison where a guard is located in a tower. He can see all the prisoners, but the prisoners can not see him. In addition, the prisoners are not aware if they are being watched or not. As a result, prisoners act on their best behavior. Some have equated the idea of the Panopticon to Internet surveillance. I agree with Walker’s argument that you can not compare the two.

The main fault in this analogy is the fact that citizens are unaware of the fact that the government can look at their Internet data. We are mostly ignorant to the exact magnitude of the government’s surveillance abilities. As a result, people do not try to make their search history particularly clean or innocent. In addition, I believe that if people were aware that the government was watching their online activity, most individuals would not alter their actions much as the average person is not doing anything illegal online.

Another issue with the Panopticon metaphor is that the prisoners are completely isolated from one another. The Internet has the complete opposite effect on its users, actually bringing people together and connecting individuals on a level never seen before in history. Because of this connection, individuals are able to share their ideas of surveillance. If someone becomes suspicious of their privacy, they would be able to share their sentiments with other Internet users.

Feeble Attempts

People say love is the most powerful force on Earth, and if that is the case, then the lure of money is an extremely close second. The Beale Papers basically gave an open invitation to a $20 million treasure (over $500 million in today’s money!) just with a catch– decipher some unbreakable ciphers. With that much money at stake and enough desperation, no task seems too large.

I agree with Singh’s conjecture that the entire story could be a made up ploy to profit off other’s greed. If this scenario were the case, the anonymous author would be humored to learn that in the 21st century, there are still individuals attempting to break the Beale Ciphers.

If professional cryptanalysts have been unable to decipher Beale’s message, what would cause the average Joe to believe he can? It’s not only the desire to find a gigantic sum of money, but also lust to be “first” or “special” or the best at something. One may be thinking If I decipher Beale’s code, I’ll be rich, AND everyone will know me as the smartest person ever! In addition, people often have a heightened sense of themselves, especially their personal skills. As a result, you get amateur and probably first time-codebreakers undertaking a task far beyond their abilities. It is important to realize when something is outside your limits. You can’t do calculus before knowing how to add, you can’t run a marathon without knowing how to walk, and you certainly can’t break an “unbreakable” cipher without extensive knowledge and practice with the subject.

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