The History and Mathematics of Codes and Code Breaking

Page 2 of 92

Reimann Sum(feat. Technology)

Technology has quite literally transformed our lives. We live in an age of undeniable prosperity and freedom, where even our poorest live a better life than ancient kings. But in recent years the very technologies that we use for pleasure have been turned against us by governments and bad-faith actors. Of course we don't live in an era of absolute freedom; we agree to cede some of our rights for safety and security. For example, we as a society agree on the use of surveillance cameras as a means of deterrence and protection, but are we ready to make the leap to facial ID? We agree that police should use DNA testing to solve crime, but what about an artificial intelligence reconstruction of a criminal that may present flaws?

One of the most striking paragraphs from Big Brother came up on page 42 when Cory Doctorow discussed how despite advancements in gait recognition software allowed recognition of individuals from their movements, the software's success rate was reduced by any number of external factors including floor material, ankle angle measure, and your energy level. This variability can lead to errors in the system which can often have devastating consequences, especially when peoples' lives and security hang in the balance. The title, I believe, accurately reflects our society's desire to perfect our creations: we input more data points, update more software, create new tools, in a never-ending journey to create the perfect AI tool. But at what point do the ethical complications from such a tool lead to sufficient harm such that an objective cost-benefit analysis would overturn the progress of such a tool? No matter how many data points we inject, a piece of technology will never perfectly emulate the human mind. Every error/mistake that's caused by the inaccuracy of technology threatens our stability, and is only magnified as the scope of the instrument exists. One particular example exists in the NSA. What would be the fallout of an inaccurate terror watch list that was compiled using the latest data points? Although this question is astronomical, it is important that we examine this issue with the utmost scrutiny.

The Cryptography Question of our Time: Surveillance vs. Privacy

Yes, I did in fact take the title from the syllabus.

It is one of the most consequential arguments of the modern world and especially in this country. Towards the end of chapter three and into chapter four of Cory Doctorow's novel, Little Brother, Marcus, the main protagonist of the story, reveals to the reader that he feels very strongly about his privacy. At this point in the novel, Marcus has been detained by the Department of Homeland Security and is being interrogated by the "severe haircut lady". She demands that Marcus unlock his phone, to which Marcus responds, "I've got the right to my privacy" (49). He makes it very clear that his privacy is of utmost importance to him even despite constant threats and continual interrogations.

Marcus goes on to explain the importance of privacy in his own life and how having even just a little part of his life completely hidden is essential for every person. He uses the analogy of privately going to the bathroom or privately being naked as a way to show that having things only for yourself is actually in fact healthy. The culmination of his argument is this: "It's not about doing something shameful. It's about doing something private. It's about your life belonging to you" (57).

This particular passage stuck with me because of its particular relevance, especially in this course. While many believe in giving up some privacy in exchange for security, Marcus presents the flip side of the conversation and is adamant about making sure his security is his own, something that every human being deserves as a basic right. And while I may not entirely agree with his argument, it gives light to what other people have concerns in regards to the problem at hand.

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

Young, Dumb, But Not Scum

One of the recurring themes of Cory Doctorow's Little Brother is the trade-off between privacy and security. In the wake of a devastating terror attack, the city of San Francisco is effectively transformed into a police state, with the each person being monitored day in and day out. Marcus, the protagonist, and his fellow youth ultimately grow disillusioned with this kind of treatment, going as far as to proclaim not to trust anyone over 25 or 30, as the older generation seems to condone and even accept this new way of life.

This dynamic of young versus old paralleling the dynamic of privacy versus security is indicative of another kind of societal dynamic: idealism versus pragmatism. For Marcus, Jolu, and Ange, the right to privacy is more than merely hiding information: it's peace of mind, the confidence that deeply personal isn't subject to scrutiny by a third party, that one's suspect yet benign information is hidden from prying eyes. However, the government views the safety blanket of privacy in a different light: as a cloak to mask malicious and malevolent intent. For the government, the idea of protecting the citizenry demands the intrusion of privacy, and those in power subscribe to such an ideology.

While I do believe the lengths to which the government in Little Brother prove to be quite extreme, for the government to facilitate the protection of the people, a degree of invasion of privacy is to be expected. In that sense, the government of Little Brother, with its all seeing eye, is caught in a double-bind. One one hand, as a government, the burden of protecting the citizenry falls on its shoulders. Likewise, in pursuit of these goals, it must also ensure that justice is delivered appropriately, minimizing false positives to the best of their ability. Under this framework, the government of Little Brother still proves indefensible in its blanket prosecutions, but displays a nuance of the debate often ignored. While those above 25 or 30 may seem to condone an severe violation of the right to privacy, many understand that such an action is the result of a government caught in a so-win situation, choosing the wisdom of pragmatism over the hope of idealism.

Little Brother's Marcus and The Doctrines of Terrorism

Before Marcus holds the first alternative/video-game-generated/XNet run press conference the world has ever seen after the gross media bias taking place in response to the Don’t Trust “riot,” Ange gives him this pep talk—“If you want to really screw the DHS, you have to embarrass them…your only weapon is your ability is to make them look like morons.”

Although perhaps a little simplified in this instance, the influence of one common adage is pervasive—How do you fight a war against terrorism, a fight against ideology? You introduce better ideas.

The influence of doctrines on the war on terror such as this one in Little Brother is not surprising, although I will admit, I found it the slightest bit ironic. While plenty of idealists are familiar with the theory of introducing new and better ideas, Doctorow’s main character Marcus turns this theory on its head, instead using his knowledge of the dark web and his impressive ability to mobilize other likeminded young idealists to take a different approach. So how do you, if you are Marcus, fight an ideology (in this case the distorted ideas about privacy by the DHS)? You recruit a brilliant group of internet vigilantes to prove the ideas are wrong by speeding up the process of self-implosion inevitable for the bad ideas. You can spend your whole life trying to spread new, better ideas—the process will be long, tiring, laborious, and might seem absolutely fruitless at times—or you can take a page out of Marcus’s book and sabotage an entire operation to make the bad ideas so present in everyone’s lives that they are unrefutably bad. Although I definitely admit Marcus’s strategy is not the most orthodox of practices, I genuinely admire the guts.

Power of a Test

After the terrorist attack on San Francisco, the Department of Homeland Security ramps up security and surveillance in hopes of catching the people responsible, but instead only manage to inconvenience, detain, and even seriously harm innocent civilians. Marcus explains that the problem with the DHS system is that they're looking for something too rare in too large a population, resulting in a very large number of false positives.

What Marcus is describing is referred to in statistics as a Type I error - that is, we reject the null hypothesis (the assumption that nothing is abnormal) when the null hypothesis is actually true. In this case, the null hypothesis is "not a terrorist", and there's enough suspicious data, the null hypothesis is rejected in favor of flagging the person for investigation. Marcus claims that in order to look for rare things, you need a test that only rejects the null hypothesis at the same rate at which the thing we're testing for - in this case, terrorists - actually occur. The problem is, there's also Type II errors. While Type I errors are caused by being too cautious, Type II errors occur when our test "misses" the thing we are actually looking for. When determining how "tough" a test should be, we need to decide how to balance these two risks.

Marcus is advocating for making the system less broad, therefore reducing false positives. However, this increases the risk for false negatives as well. So, which is worse: a false positive or a false negative? That's a question of expected value, which is based off the probability of a result and its consequences. In this case, the result at one end of the spectrum is the terrorists are caught because of this system, but many innocent people are subject to surveillance and searching. On the other end is that no one is caught because they slip through a timid test, and more people are hurt as a result. Clearly, this can easily turn into a much more complicated debate on the values of time, trust, privacy, and life, so I won't try to determine what the correct balance is myself. Although it's easy to describe some aspects of this conflict with numbers, as Marcus did, it just isn't that simple.

Misleading Statistics

An interesting pint Cory Doctorow brought up in his novel, Little Brother, is the idea of the "false positive." He writes, "Say you have a new disease, called Super­AIDS. Only one in a million people gets Super­AIDS. You develop a test for Super­AIDS that's 99 percent accurate... You give the test to a million people. One in a million people have Super­AIDS. One in a hundred people that you test will generate a 'false positive' ­­ the test will say he has Super­AIDS even though he doesn't. That's what '99 percent accurate' means: one percent wrong... If you test a million random people, you'll probably only find one case of real Super­AIDS. But your test won't identify one person as having Super­AIDS. It will identify 10,000 people as having it" (128).

This idea can be linked to Michael Morris' essay on student data mining. Critics of Morris' argue that looking at students' data would not be an effective method of school shooting prevention, as many innocent behaviors can be seen as "suspicious." Even if looking into student data is deemed 99% effective in detecting threatening individuals (Which it is not. In fact, it is most likely nowhere near that statistic), the false positive theory explains that many more non-suspicious students will be marked as suspicious than actually suspicious people. However, one can argue that the pros of these "threat tracking" methods outweigh the cons. If data surveillance can prevent a dangerous school attack, then it is worth identifying a couple innocent people as suspicious. (This opinion can be seen as a bit Machiavellian.)

The paradox of the false positive can be applied to beyond data encryption. One can use this idea to examine how misleading statistics are in general. For example, hand sanitizer claims to kill 99.9% of bacteria. There's about 1500 bacterial cells living on each square centimeter of your hands. If 99.9% of those bacterial cells are killed off by hand sanitizer, there's still several billions left, and the ones left are probably the strong ones capable of making you sick.

Surveillance = Dehumanization

One of the topics most widely discussed throughout Little Brother by Cory Doctorow is government surveillance. Was it justifiable for the DHS to track the citizens of San Francisco's every move in the name of national security? An instance where this ethical dilemma came into question occurred on pages 136-138, when Marcus and his father learned that the DHS was closely monitoring ground chatter. Marcus, who was responsible for this spike in chatter, was opposed to the DHS’ involvement with the issue, while his father praised the DHS for their work attempting to catch the “methodical fools.” According to Marcus’ father, in today's society you must sacrifice some things in order to feel safe, asking his son, “Would you rather have privacy or terrorists?” Marcus on the other hand sees the monitoring as an invasion of privacy, and does not believe that surveillance will amount to the arrest of terrorists.  


I found both Marcus and his father’s arguments extremely interesting and compelling. On one hand, the terrorists who killed thousands of people where still physically free, and potentially able to cause more harm. On the other hand, the constant monitoring has only slowed society, and has created fear throughout the city. Although both arguments are valid, from an ethical standpoint I would have to side with Marcus. The use of algorithms and data-mining to determine the likelihood of a person to be a terrorist is extremely dehumanising. In the US, we have already turned humans into mere digits by using social security numbers to keep track of virtually everything we do. Data-mining, for the purpose of finding criminals, reduces human behavior to simple numbers. We are not computers. This dehumanization allows the government to treat us like statistics. As shown by the book, we go far beyond this assumption. Our behavior is influenced by a range of variables (like emotions), that computers cannot comprehend. 


We the People

“Governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, that whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.”

This passage shows up multiple times over the course of the novel, but these are not the words of Cory Doctorow. Marcus first recites this quote during a social studies class debate on civil rights their current War on Terror, and then again later during an online press conference he gave to publicize the actions of the XNetters. These words, written in the Declaration of Independence by the founders of our country, are as prevalent in Little Brother as they were in 1776. In the wake of the terrorist attack on their city, with the technology that exists in the book, the citizens of San Francisco are under extreme scrutiny by the Department of Homeland Security. The government decided that in the dire circumstances, its people no longer reserved the right to privacy. But as the nation’s founding document points out, the role of the government should be to maintain both the safety and happiness of the country. The DHS has an obligation to protect Americans which cannot be done without some level of public surveillance, but interrupting thousands of peoples’ daily lives to question their every move in both invasive — and as Marcus later points out with his “False Positive effect” — ineffective. That is why I believe he and his undeclared “followers” are justified in their actions to dismantle the DHS’s efforts. As citizens, it is both their duty and right to take these measures in order to “establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility…and secure the Blessings of Liberty” for themselves and the rest of the nation when the central government has failed to do so.

Next Time Rent Out a Private Venue

In chapter 12, the “Don’t Trust Anyone Over 25” concert was a setting in the book that I found very interesting. The concert’s premise was basically an illegal open air concert at Dolores Park organized via the Xnet. The highly anticipated concert began with an energetic crowd full of people who were happy and dancing together. However the concert took a turn for the worse once cops dressed in riot gear with infrared goggles moved in to disperse the crowd. At this point there was mass confusion and screaming, many people ran away and attempted to leave but many were swallowed into a radical crowd that felt very defiant towards the authorities. It became graphic quite quick as the concert goers got gassed by riot control, hundreds of people collapsed and gasped for air and then were tied up and fed into vans for questioning.

As soon as I came to this part of the part of the book I found it very riveting, a secret concert to the uninformed public eye despite thousands of people knowing about it online. I really enjoyed the author’s account of the energy at the beginning of the event as well as describing the crowd’s dynamic making it sound like an event that was extremely powerful to the people in the Xnet community. I also enjoyed the evolution of the event from a concert, to a discussion of civil liberty, then ultimately to an activist group statement against the oppression that they felt from the Department of Homeland security. 

In my opinion, the violence of the crowd was incited by the radicals of the group. Specifically it was Trudy Doo’s voice that manipulated the intentions of the crowd to fight for what they believed in. To me, it felt right that at this point the riot patrol gassed them. From an outsider’s perspective they were being a rowdy crowd gathered illegally late at night. But it didn’t really feel like they were being rowdy and obnoxious until the cops came and told them to leave.

Page 2 of 92

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén