The History and Mathematics of Codes and Code Breaking

Author: Xinyi Zhang

My Privacy Wants, Your Privacy Wants

A passage that caught my attention while reading Little Brother by Cory Doctorow was one in which the protagonist, Marcus, discusses why people want privacy. On page 57, Marcus asks the reader to consider the act of defecating. There is nothing shameful, abnormal or criminal about using the washroom so why would having to evacuate solid waste “in a glass room perched in the middle of Times Square” make us uncomfortable? Marcus argues “It’s not about doing something shameful. It’s about doing something private. It's about your life belonging to you.” This quote attracted my attention because it made me reconsider my stance on the privacy vs. security debate. In my previous blog post addressing the article, “Mining Student Data Could Save Lives”, I had wholeheartedly agreed with Michael Morris’ attempt to persuade colleges to data mine in order to prevent mass shootings however, Doctorow’s quote prompted me to further consider with the flip side.

Currently, there are no security cameras in the washrooms on Vanderbilt’s campus. I hypothesize if camera were installed in washrooms, there would be an uproar. Like Doctorow points out, there is nothing shameful about using the washroom but I can imagine many people might feel dehumanized if they were being surveilled while showering, brushing their teeth or defecating. Why would I want toilet stalls? I’m not sure, I just want my privacy. It might be hard to justify using words why those actions required privacy yet there is an almost unanimous agreement one should have privacy when defecating, hence the existence of toilet stalls. Having some degree of privacy, is liberating. This caused me to reevaluate the value of my privacy. How much privacy I want will not perfectly align how much privacy my peers want. I would still want to respect the privacy wants of others.

Data-Mining for Campus Safety

The central thesis in Michael Morris’ essay, “Mining Student Data Could Save Lives”, is colleges should utilize readily-available data-mining technology to prevent crime on campus. He supports his theory by showcasing the need for crime-prevention, highlighting other examples of data-mining used in society, and addressing privacy concerns.

Due to the large concentrations of people on college campuses, Morris concludes, colleges are prime locations for large-scale shootings. Therefore, there is a greater need to prevent violence in high risk locations. The investigations of all acts large-scale campus violence has revealed, in most cases, there were early-warning signs present however they were not recognized or responded to by campus staff. Conclusively, data-mining as a prevention method would be effective in reducing a large number of mass shootings at college campuses.

To further his central argument, Morris exemplifies a case in which data-mining is used in society for crime prevention. For example, banks use mining algorithms to recognize unusual spending patterns. Then, the bank will freeze the credit card to prevent further transactions, thus preventing more loss. Campuses too, can implement such an algorithm to monitor online student activities to detect behavioural patterns indicative of planned crime.

Lastly, Morris refutes any privacy concerns by highlighting how our online activities have always been surveilled and despite this knowledge, society continues to forfeit their privacy rights by using social-networking sites. Companies like Amazon and Gmail already use data-mining to analyze our behaviour patterns so they can better market to our needs. Additionally, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) has been modified to allow exceptions to releasing a student's education record without their permission to address concerns about privacy violation.

I agree with Morris’ central argument because I would forfeit my privacy if it increased the possibility of helping save even one life. Additionally, the loss of privacy does not seem severe to me in a world where I am already under constant surveillance, as Morris points out. Considering the availability of data-mining technology and its benefits, it would be a waste to forgo utilizing it.

A Weak Cipher Turned Enemy's Advantage

The quote “weak encryption can be worse than no encryption at all” describes the phenomenon in which sender of an encrypted message is more likely to state clearly and in detail his or her intentions than when writing a unencrypted message with full knowledge the enemy will be inspecting the text. When writing an unencrypted message, the sender will be more inclined to make the contents of the message vague so it is understood by the receiver but confusing to the interceptor. The sender would also take caution not to reveal any secrets in the message which could benefit the enemy or implicate the sender and allies because the sender is acutely aware of the lack of encryption. However, when a text is encrypted the sender has faith in the security of the encryption and writes messages believing the enemy will not be able to interpret the text. As the in case of Queen Mary’s cipher, she and Anthony Babington did not consider the possibility their cipher could be broken and thus, they communicated their plans of revolt explicitly. Furthermore, weak encryption in particular is dangerous because it can be easily cracked and used by the enemy to deceive the correspondents. This is perfectly illustrated in the case of Queen Mary's cipher which was broken by Thomas Phelippes and used against Queen Mary and Babington to incriminate Babington’s men. 

This implies for those who encrypt secret messages, they should still communicate vaguely, as though their messages are not encrypted and are being inspected by enemy eyes before reaching the receiver. Additionally, correspondents of encrypted messages should be cautious when writing implicating secrets, as Babington was not, resulting in the capture of his men. Babington could have better protected the identities of his men by describing their qualities in his message without revealing their names. When a cipher is used, the strength of its security should be kept in mind, as a weak cipher could become an enemy's advantage. As the cipher of Mary Queen demonstrates, unsuspecting faith in the security of a cipher can be more dangerous than using no cipher.

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