The History and Mathematics of Codes and Code Breaking

Author: weissbcl Page 1 of 2

Worry About Amazon

In Episode 062 of Leading Lines, Derek Bruff’s guest Chris Gillard begins talking about changing his twitter handle to something insulting Amazon as a joke. In explaining his motivation behind this, he said  “I’m very troubled to say the least by the surveillance network amazon is building.” While almost just a comment in passing, I found this to be an extremely interesting comment. This is because of the role amazon is begging to play in our society. For a long time, I have claimed that the things amazon is beginning to do are not only troublesome in terms of our security, but also in terms of our economy and our survival.

What Amazon started out doing was fine. Providing an online marketplace to compete with in-store shopping and with online shopping on companies’ sites was a good idea. However, the success of that idea has allowed Amazon to expand into much more than that. As Amazon out competes retail and closes stores, and as it grows dominance as the only mainstream online marketplace, its power becomes too intense. This is shown in the fact that it has been proven that Amazon’s actions directly impact inflation, which no one company should be able to do, and that municipal governments competed and begged for Amazon’s headquarters. This business such a powerful presence, and it is expanding. Amazon is planning to start it own banking system. This would make the Amazon experience completely contained: people could hold their money in Amazon and use it to purchase what they need in Amazon. The problem is that this involves giving away so much financial and personal data. And not to the government; to a private company. If the government can abuse data, a private company can do worse, and a private company that it seems can’t be held accountable because society is starting to depend on it can do much, much worse.

The Different Social Medias

In chapter 2 of Its Complicated: The Social Life of Networked Teens, author Danah Boyd jumps into the role social media plays in the lives of today’s youth. Specifically, she analyzes how much youth want to share, and how much they want to keep private. While reading the book book, I found the statement “As discussed in the introduction, technical affordances and design defaults do influence how teens understand and use particular social media, but they don’t dictate practice” particularly interesting. As I look back on my experience as a teen, it is very intriguing to me to think about what social medias were used for what purposes.

For me, instagram was and still is the main social media platform in my life. Instagram was originally structured as a photo sharing app. The main thing you could do was post photos of yourself for the world to see. It was a user to world communication rather than a user to user communication. Since then, instagram has added user to user communication, but because its original purpose was to post pictures of oneself, people’s main use of an instagram account is still to portray themselves to the world. 

Another social media I have used whose structure influenced its usage was In short, was terrible. In, each user had an account. Onj your account, people can anonymously ask you questions in your inbox. You could then choose to answer those questions, and your answers would appear on your profile. Because of the text-based anonymity, became a hub for middle school bullying, There was a high level of privacy, but that only have license for kids to be mean because they knew they wouldn’t get caught. 

DES Was Necesary

In the 1970’s, and to this day, the National Security Agency, or NSA, has been the strongest force in encryption and decryption in America. They put the most resources into cryptography intercept the most messages, and have the most codebreaking power of any organization in America. However, the NSA spends a lot of time and resources trying to maintain its status as the most powerful in the world of encryption. This means it can often run into problems when civilians create cryptographic methods that the NSA can’t handle. This is exactly what happened with Horst Feistel and the Lucifer system. Feistel, a German who had recently immigration to the United States had developed an encryption system, which he called Lucifer, which was extremely strong because it converted messages into binary and then methodically scrambled them 16 times. The NSA could see that businesses would be using this technology, but the problem was that the system required a key. There were too many potential keys that not even the NSA could crack lucifer. So, they officially adopted the Lucifer system as the DES (Data Encryption Standard). However, the DHS explicitly limited the amount of possible keys, so that businesses would still use the technology, but the NSA could crack it. In this action, the NSA was justified. Though it is a slight violation of privacy, they had no other choice. 

The DES is a violation of the purest form of privacy. With the DES implemented, businesses and civilians don’t have complete control over their data. They cannot decide what they wouldn’t like to share with the government because they DES is engineered so that the NSA can see all. 

Still, the DES doesn’t mean the government is spying on everything. Just because the DES gives the government the capability to read everyone’s data doesn’t mean that the government actually is. The DES is justified because there inevitably will be a case where the government must read a businesses data. Without the DES that is impossible, and it needs to be possible. 

Gender in the War

The history of World War Two is incomplete if one does not analyze two elements: cryptography and gender. While these items have been recounted and studied heavily on their own, rarely have they been discussed together. The women who played a huge role in cryptography in the second world war have rarely been credited, that is until the book Code Girls, a book by Liza Mundy about their history, came out. This book, specifically chapter three, discusses in depth the role gender played in the cryptography of world war two. In the general. cryptography opened up new opportunities for women in world war two, but gender dynamics were still very imbalanced in the working world.

In general, World War Two presented opportunities for women to enter the workplace, as vacant positions left by men in war needed to be filled. However, the willingness of bosses to hire women varied greatly. One pivotal element of the story of cryptography is that William Friedman, head of the U.S office of code breaking, was exceptionally willing to hire women. This gave many women who never were ever permitted to get graduate degrees or teach mathmatics to now be propelled to the forefront of some of the most important mathmatics in the world. These women, like Genieveve Grotjan, would make some of the most important accomplishments in World War Two cryptography, including the initial breaks into the Purple cipher. In this way, cryptography gave women new opportunities, and women seized this opportunities fully and propelled cryptography to new heights.

However, it must be acknowledged that not all was equal in the world of cryptography. The was the author visualizes Grotjan’s cracking of the purple machine explains this. She describes Grotjan standing in the corner of the room, hesitant to share. This helps the reader understand that it was still not easy for women in the workplace. They weren’t taken as seriously as they should have been, and we still had, and have, a long way to go.

Zodiac Codes, Podcast Time!

For this assignment, I listened to “A Killer on the Loose: The Zodiac Ciphers,” a podcast by a Vanderbilt student about the story of the Zodiac killer and the cryptography involved in his crimes. This story first explained the Zodiac killer’s crimes and murders, then delved into the story of how he contacted the press with ciphers that supposedly contained his identity. The podcast explained what kind of ciphers these were, how they were cracked, what information was uncovered, and what is still unknown. 

What I found most interesting about this episode was purely the topic of discussion and the story. I think the creator of this podcast did an amazing job of picking an intriguing topic through which to educate people about cryptography. Cryptography itself may not be so interesting, but the story of a serial killer using obscure symbols and concealing his identity is enticing.

I think that the producer of this podcast made it interesting by matching the presentation of the information with the information being presented. In other words, she was telling the story of a serial killer, and she matched this by presenting the information in an eerie way. She used spooky cliffhangers, used gunshot sound effects, and had an ominous music playing in the background the whole time. This drew the listener in emotionally to the story.

Admittedly, this producer could have done a better job of making the technical aspects accessible. Someone with no cryptography experience would not come away from this podcast with an understanding of what a transposition cipher is or what a Caesar cipher is. Still, I think the producers did a good job of interjecting cryptography knowledge as an important part of the story, which held the listener’s attention. 

I think it would be really interesting for me to do a podcast on how cryptography is portrayed in movies. There is such a grand spectrum of how accurate or inaccurate code-breaking is in the movies, and I think it would be interesting to investigate why some movies fudge the details of cryptography more than others. Technically, I also think this would be interesting from a production standpoint as I could intereject the podcast with dialogue from the movies. 

Hall: Ruthless or Ethical?

Late into the first world war, top level German officer Arthur Zimmerman wanted to assert Germany dominance with a major offensive move. He wanted to start unrestricted U-Boat Warfare. He knew that a potential outcome of this would be the United States entering a war. His plan for combatting thisEthical was an alliance with Mexico. If the Americans entered the war, Mexico would ally with Germany and, using funds from the Germans, invade America to reclaim Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico. Zimmerman sent this message as a telegram that was intercepted by the British. This message was then quickly deciphered enough to crack its basic message, but not completely deciphered, and brought to British Admiral Hall. To the cryptographers’ surprise, Hall did nothing with the message. He believed that it was not worth it to convey these messages to the Americans because there could be vital information in the non-deciphered parts and because if America started reacting to Germany’s plans, it would be revealed that Germany’s encryption had been broken, compromising the Biriths’s intelligence position. It is important to wonder whether hall did the ethical  thing in this situation. I believe that Hall’s actions were ethical if he intended to do the most good for the most amount of people. 

I look at ethics in a utilitarian way. If an action is intended to accomplish  the most good possible for the most amount of people possible it is ethical. However, if an action is intended to benefit a small party but be harmful to the larger group, it is unethical. Hall’s position could have been unethical. By not sending America the decipher telegram, he was basically allowing America to be provoked by unrestricted U-Boat Warfare. Essentially, that means he was going to allow a deadly attack to happen for America to come into the war. If Hall was doing this just because he didn’t want to have to deal with Germany knowing that Britain had broken their encryption, this would be unethical.

However, the argument could be made that Hall actually was doing the most good for the most amount of people. It is possible that the British being able to decipher German messages was actually leading to lives being saved on a daily basis. It is possible that, had Germany stopped using their encryption because Britain could decipher it, more lives would be lost than in one unrestricted U-Boat attack. Additionally, Hall chose to hold the message rather than send it to the Americans because he thought that there may be vital information in the parts that hadn’t been deciphered. He did this on January 16th, leaving plenty of time for the whole code to be cracked before February 1st, when the U-boat attacks would begin. In this case, it seems that Hall is making sure everyone is safe and acting in the interests of the public. Therefore, I would argue that when Hall made this seemingly harmful decision, he was probably acting ethically by drying to do the most good for the most amount of people. 


Jeremy Bentham, the famous utilitarian philosopher, is the original creator of the concept of the Panopticon. The Panopticon is a surveillance facility, typically a prison, which is supposed to achieve a foolproof system. In a panopticon, prisoners are held in cells in a rotunda building with an illuminated inspection tower in the middle. In this system, the prison guard in the inspection tower can see into every cell in the surrounding rotunda building. However, since the tower is illuminated, the prisoners cannot see the guard. They never know when they are being watched, so they are incentivized to act as if they are being watched always, making for perfect order. Since Bentham first invented the concept, people have begun to think about the Panopticon as a metaphor for how the government surveys the public. This metaphor works for explaining how the government might like to survey the public, but it ends up oversimplifying the situation.

The Panopticon works in an interesting way as a metaphor for how the government would like surveillance to go. First, in the Panopticon, the surveillance officer can see all, yet cannot be seen. In many ways, this is how the government would like to maintain order. To be able to monitor all activity with ease would, in theory, be the best way to identify and shut out danger and crime. However, the real cost would be the people’s feelings of being violated. However, in the Panopticon, the prisoners cannot identify the prison guard or whether or not they’re being watched. In theory, they have no method of exposing those who have violated them. Moreover, an important way that the Panopticon is a great metaphor for the inceptive aspect of the system. Most people see government surveillance as a way to catch those who are already posing a threat to society. However, the Panopticon, when used as a metaphor, reminds us that the government can also survey to deter people from acting out. In the Panopticon, prisoners behave because they are inceptived to act as if they are always being watched. Similarly, the government can use surveillance techniques as a way to scare people against acting out for fear that they may be caught. 

Despite its strong suits, the Panopticon fails as a metaphor to accurately explain the give and take between privacy and security. In the panopticon, the prisoners cannot interact with each other and are unable from learning anything about the guards who are watching them. But this is far from the truth in the real world. In reality, those who feel violated always fight back by interacting with each other and teaming up against oppression. The panopticon does not account for this happening, yet it always will. Additionally, privacy movements usually are popularized due to the public learning about a way that the government has been violating privacy rights. In the real world, people always learn new information about the government in relation to privacy. For these reasons, the panopticon does not accurately explain surveillance systems and everything that happens around them. 

The Great Cipher Was a Really Great Cipher

The 1600’s were a strange time in the history of cryptography. Monoalphabetic ciphers had run their course, with cryptanalysts having the resources and know-how to crack any monoalphabetic cipher quickly. On the other hand, the newly developed polyalphabetic cipher, a cipher that uses multiple cipher alphabets, was effective but too tedious to be embraced by codemakers. People needed a method of encryption that was unbreakable and also not so difficult to use. That’s when the Rossingols, cryptanalysts employed by the French government, developed the Great Cipher of Louis XIV. It is important to wonder why this particular cipher, which is just an enhanced monoalphabetic cipher, took 200 years to decipher.

The first reason why the Great cipher took so long to decipher was its complexity compared to ciphers cryptanalysis had seen in the past. The Great Cipher was a monoalphabetic cipher, meaning each symbol in the “cipher alphabet” mapped to one and only one thing in the plaintext alphabet. Still, it was extremely different from all other monoalphabetic ciphers. First, it used numbers. The use of numbers to map to letters had been a relatively new development in cryptography, and cryptanalysts still didn’t know the best method to decipher numeric codes. More importantly, however, the Great Cipher included 576 numbers: many more letters than there are in the alphabet. This great of a mismatch between the quantity of symbols and the quantity of letters had never been seen before, so there was initially a huge gap between the experience of the cryptallaists and the complexity of this cipher.

The second reason the Great Cipher took so long to decipher was the technologies available at the time. This was a cipher of 576 numbers. If it were 26 numbers, it would be somewhat obvious that each number matches a letter. However, with 576 numbers, each number could mean anything. So, many possibilities needed to be tested out. However, due to the fact that everything had to be written out, testing a possibility was extremely tedious, time consuming, and daunting. Bazeries, the man who eventually deciphered the Great Cipher 200 years later, spent months testing if it was a homophone and then spent months testing whether the numbers represented pairs of words. In short, no one wanted to do the herculean task of testing failing decriptions over and over again with pen and paper, so it took a long time before someone took up the task.

Lastly, the Great Cipher took so long to decipher because of the creativity and effectiveness of the cipher itself. Each cipher in the past had been based off of letters, but the Rossingols based their cipher off of syllables, matching each number to a syllable in the english language. This system made it just as easy to send messages and decode them with a key, but made the cipher extremely difficult to crack, given that there are so many potential syllables. The creativity put into this cipher showed, as no one thought to look at the syllables for 200 years. The Great Cipher took so long to crack because it was everything a great cipher is: complex, daunting, and way before its time. 


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.

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