The History and Mathematics of Codes and Code Breaking

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A Matter of Faith

It’s easy to subscribe to the idea that a government that remains aloof from the business of its people is a good way to safeguard the right to privacy of the individual; modernity is full of examples of what too much government oversight can lead to, from China to North Korea. However, though seemingly analogous, the cases of China and North Korea give no pertinent information as to how increases in the US government’s latitude to watch its citizenry would play out. However, given the current sociopolitical climate of the nation and the state of advancing technology, independent of the examples of other nations, it’s clear to see that the US would actually benefit from increased government surveillance.

One such case where the US population would benefit is law enforcement. One needn’t look further than the case of the Golden State Killer to see how law enforcement can leverage advancing technologies in surveillance and tracking to catch and hold notorious killers and criminals accountable, even decades after the fact. Further, with criminals being able to leverage advancing technologies in order to further their own malicious goals, the ability for police to track and identify threats must increase accordingly, or else law enforcement will be powerless to stop or at the very least mitigate potential damages. Altogether, it’s not hard to see all the potential benefit that might come in allowing the government to leverage advancing technologies in a manner that would increase their ability to watch the populace.

Yet, there still exists resistance to the idea, borne of an inherent distrust of government and its actions. A principle argument against the granting of increased power to the government is how it will inevitably lead to a slippery slope into fascism; as the adage says “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”. However, who’s to say that the government of the United States of America is not already too powerful, under that framework. With the largest defense budget in the world as well as an army, navy, and air force that can be mobilized in an instant, no right bestowed upon the individual could possibly stop the U.S. from becoming a fascist state if it so chooses; the events in Hong Kong could as easily play out in New York, San Francisco, or Los Angeles should the government as a whole see it fit. So what’s stopping it? Our democratic institutions, from freedom of the press to democratic elections, and many more beyond. So long as we don’t allow increased surveillance to erode away at the fundamental principles that uphold our democracy, increased surveillance will not be the first domino tipped in a long chain of events that will turn the US into yet another totalitarian regime. Rather, it will be a tool to augment national security and keep innocent people safe in an age that seems to grow more dangerous by the minute.

Why we need more surveillance

Now there’s the obvious reason that more surveillance can catch more criminals, achieve more justice, deter further crime, and thus lead to a safer society. To those who suggest that citizens’ privacy will be violated in our quest for more safety, I say this: our privacy will be destroyed anyway. According to historical trends, coupled with the current political climate, the government will only continue to add more cameras, initiate more surveillance programs, and expand. Thus the only recourse to check the power of an overreaching government is to add more cameras that are able to document the every action: actions undertaken by the public and by the government. Thus it is meaningless to debate national security with the assumption that we still have privacy, because that assumption isn’t based in reality.

Finally this third reason may be a bit… strange. Individuals are selfish creatures who often act within their own self-interest to achieve a goal, even if that means harming others along the way. There are countless examples of corporations, small groups, and individuals harming others to achieve a personal or professional goal. Thus it’s far better for the government, which generally consists of a more educated subsection of the populace, to make decisions on behalf of the public even if the public has no say in the decision, or the government obtains their data through privacy-violating means. Thus, it is for the above reasons that I am pro-surveillance.

Face app: How companies use seemingly innocuous apps to gather data on us

The interview with Chris Gilliard dove into some interesting points, from the way colleges gauge student interest by the number of times they open their email to how doorbell can surveil their customers through the use of the Ring camera. But one of the more interesting points I thought came from Face App. This app recently became viral for its “aging” photos, where user submit current pictures of themselves and the app will provide an estimation of how you look in the next couple decades. From happy churchgoers to Lebron James, millions of people have used this app: but where are their pictures going? Face app stores visual data about their users and is then able to curate content or sell that data to other companies, often without or awareness or consent.

But this app brings into focus the broader argument of how companies violate our privacy and take our data through everyday actions. Even when browsing the App Store or google searching items to make a cake, big tech is monitoring our movements to better understand our behavior, and how they can better fit our needs and thus gain more profit. When we as users submit photos to face app or tweet on twitter, we must understand that we are giving away bits and pieces of ourselves to strangers whose sole intention it is to make a profit off that. And it’s important to hold companies accountable for what apps they create, especially if they’re taking user data without an explicit agreement on not selling said data. Although it’s ultimately the companies’ choosing to release apps such as face app, we the users must be more aware of what using those apps entails.

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.

Whether we can or we should: an exploration of privacy in the digital age

“What’s at stake is not whether someone can listen in but whether one should.”

This quote from It’s Complicated by Danah Boyd perfectly illustrates the complex role of privacy in an increasingly digital age. As opposed to the past where locked doors and hushed conversations limited parents’ intrusions into their children’s privacy, the rise of public chat rooms, profiles, and pages on social media platforms have allowed increased access to the social media profiles of students. One common argument that parents often make for the stalking of their kids’ social media is the fact that it’s accessible to the public, and therefore they can look at it. But that argument fails to account for whether or not they should look at it. I have the ability to run through commons and make a scene when getting my breakfast; that doesn’t mean I should do it, because doing so causes a public disturbance that violates social etiquette. It’s this sense of social etiquette that drives our sense of morality, and what should prevent parents from excessively looking at their children’s’ online profiles without cause. This argument should be extended into the information age and evolve into a sort of digital etiquette. Even if online accessibility has increased, boundaries remain very real and should be respected no matter the medium of information exchange. It’s well known that government agencies such as the NSA possess the tools to decipher our encryptions and monitor our messages; but doing so knowingly violates citizens’ rights to privacy without just cause and can turn into a slippery slope where all communication is monitored by an overarching surveillance state. However dystopian that may sounds, its effects are being observed in realtime where increased violation of boundaries often leads to more secrecy and unexpected consequences.

Just because an action can be applied isn’t reason enough for its application. Those who use this justification often have ulterior goals, and it’s necessary that parents, authorities, and everyone in between recognize that boundaries exist and respect them. The “can” vs “should” argument will no doubt persist, but I hope this blog post was able to clarify the debate around this topic with respect to privacy. 

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. 

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.

Was Zimmerman Guilty?

In an attempt to bring RSA encryption-level security to the masses, Zimmerman released Pretty Good Privacy(PGP). But in his attempt to do so, Zimmerman had one large issue: The FBI had taken notice of his activities and were frightened. They were frightened because they believed that they would not longer be able to wiretap criminals and bring them to justice in Zimmermans’s attempt to bring NSA-proof security to the masses. Zimmer eventually published the PGP onto the internet through a friend, which the FBI deemed as “exporting munitions” because a foreign government or hostile power could have easily accessed it. This remains problematic for a number of reasons, but ultimately Zimmerman was wrong in publishing software on the internet because he did so with the intent to deceive the US government and provide top grade security for all, law-abiding citizens and criminals alike.

When anyone publishes anything on the internet, they should be able to face the consequences of their action. We’ve seen in the present how past videos or texts can come back to derail an established politician’s career. Anything posted on the web never truly disappears, and people need to be aware of this fact. Critics state that because Zimmer hadn’t actually sent the software to a foreign government, he shouldn’t have been pursued by the FBI; but the fact remains, Zimmerman published his work in an attempt to deceive the US government. And in fact, another more compelling argument remains: if country A sells weapons to country B, and country B is currently engaged in a genocide and A is aware of this fact, then Country A is at least partially to blame for providing the tools with which that genocide occurs. A key component of this argument is that those who provide the tools must know that their tools can and will be used to enact harm, and Zimmerman certainly fell true to this.

In all, this question is one that is difficult to answer, but if cryptanalysts publish software that has circumvented the government’s wished and that they know will be used for harm, such as Zimmerman, then such cryptanalysts are at least partially responsible for the consequences that ensue.

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.

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. 

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