The History and Mathematics of Codes and Code Breaking

Author: weissbcl

Little Brother: Innocence and Regret

Little Brother by Cory Doctorow, as it follows its protagonist, Marcus, juxtaposes complex technological and political conflicts with intimate moments of childhood and adolescence. The passage from this book that resonated with me the most, and by far my favorite passage, was the passage in which Marcus recounts his memories of LARPing, or Live Action Role Playing. He delves deep into his memories about how much he used to love to play these games, and how one specific game had led him to an extremely embarrassing moment. This passage was particularly important to me because it touched upon two prevalent themes in my life: the longing for childhood innocence and the difficulty of moving on from a moment you intensely regret. 

In this passage, Marcus begins to recount his fondest memories of childhood. He begins to talk about “scout camps,” which were weekend-long role playing games. He remembers how in the first one he was a wizard, and he was wholly invested in the character and he felt that his only goal was to seek out the one person who was his designated target. The important thing is that Marcus called these games his “favorite thing in the world.” This is something that keeps me up at night. I can’t think of anything in the world that could be more fun than being a kid, having the ability to totally forget the world around you and create a new world. I can’t think of anything more fun than truly believing that you are a wizard and that all your best friends were other magical beings. I often worry that I will never be able to achieve that level of release from real world problems. I often worry that I will never be able to achieve the level of innocence and bliss that I could play as a kid. I often worry that my best days are behind me. 

As Marcus nears the end of his story, he gets to the point. He used to play another LARPing game which involved pretending to be a vampire and running around a hotel. At one point, a reporter who was staying at the hotel where the game was being played asked Marcus what he was up to. Marcus responded with a funny lie about how his tribe was on a search for someone in their royal bloodline after they had lost their prince. The journalist, however, published this as a story. In the end, Marcus’s joke belittled this LARP game and more importantly made him the subject of great teasing and humiliation. Marcus begins to describe how it feels to think back on this memory of embarrassment, and there are few literary passages I’ve related to more than how he describes it. I know how it feels to have done or said the wrong thing and to think back on it. It is almost a physical pain. The intensity of regret mixed with the hopeless desire to change the past momentarily overcomes you. This is how Marcus felt about what he did, and it is how I felt about many of my words and actions throughout life. That is why this passage touched me. L

Privacy VS. Security

For many years, the debate about encryption and hiding messages has come down to one trade off: personal privacy vs. communal security. In his article “Mining Student Data Could Save Lives,” Micheal Morris takes a strong stance on this debate. His argument pertaining explicitly to universities, he claims that if universities could prevent tragedies if they looked into student's data more. He believes that a technique called “Data Mining” could be used to prevent events like stalkings, suicides, and mass shootings on campuses.

Morris begins his article with an analogy to a school shooter and crystal ball. He portrays a vivid image of a student holding a glock and then states “If only there had been a way to look into a crystal ball and see that this horrific confrontation was about to occur, it could have been prevented.” This sets up his main argument that schools could prevent serious tragedies if they only had a closer look into the lives of their students. Morris then explains that this “crystal ball” is, in a way possible through data mining. Data mining would involve a similar process to, as Morris explained, credit card tracking. When a credit card company sees that you have an irregular pattern of spending, they will shut off your card because of the possibility that it has been stolen. Similarly, certain patterns of behavior online can be indicative to a university of potential real life actions. An online history of looking at automatic weapons might let the university know of a potential shooter threat. Knowledge of a google drive draft of a suicide note might allow the university know of a potential victim of suicide. With the right data, the university may be able to save lives. However, people have begun to value their data privacy so much that they have a problem with universities tracking these sorts of data. Still, Morris argues that it is worthy of losing some privacy. 

I completely agree with Morris’s argument. First, this system wouldn’t even involve a major sacrifice of privacy. It wouldn’t monitor students talking about drinking or parties or anything of that sort. It would only monitor for behaviors that could pose a serious threat to students. Second, I believe that most people fear systems like the one Morris describes not because they value privacy so much but because of how the government’s similar system has not worked out. In the post 9-11 world, the US government has become notorious for non-consensually taking citizens data and doing nothing good with it. People fear that it will be the same with universities. The difference is that a university can do far less to hurt a person than the government, and that the universities will be operating more smaller systems with a much more specific task. The potential for data abuse is much smaller. For those reasons, I believe that universities should be doing whatever they can to prevent these tragedies.

Cryptography Changes History

In Chapter 1 of The Code Book, author Simon Signh introduces the reader to the concept of cryptography. In this chapter, Signh gives explanations for what codes and ciphers are, examples of specific codes and ciphers, and many examples in which codes and ciphers were used. Many of the examples Signh uses in which cryptography was used are from long ago and involve political and military leaders and major events in history. This begs the question of why Signh chose these examples to talk about the concealing of messages. It seems that he used them not because they are the only examples that have survived or because cryptography requires exceptional resources. I believe that Signh used these examples because he had to start at the beginning of the history of cryptography and at the same time try to sell cryptography as an interesting concept. 

Signh’s goal in this chapter is to introduce cryptography and its history, so naturally he will start with early examples of cryptography. Yet he doesn’t just pick any early examples; he picks the ones that had the biggest impact on major events. The first example of hidden messages in history Signh uses is Demaratus and the battle between Persia and Greece. In this example, Demartus, a greek living in Persia, took the wax off of a table, wrote a message warning the Greeks of Persia’s plan to attack on the wood, rewaxed the table, and transported this table to the Greeks. The Greeks were able to find and read Demartus’ hidden message, allowing them to prepare for the attack. I believe that Signh used this example not to demonstrate that only a few examples of hidden messages throughout history have survived, nor to demonstrate that hiding messages requires advanced resources (all that was needed was a table), but because this example entices the reader into the subject of cryptography and explains how impactful it can be. Hiding messages is one thing, but hiding messages that change the outcome of entire wars, that is exciting and important. 

Signh’s use of these examples as his first examples in his book casts meaning on what he sees as the purpose of cryptography in today's world. Sign doesn’t just value code making and code breaking for their own sake. He understands that they are, today and in the future, tools that can change history.

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