The History and Mathematics of Codes and Code Breaking

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Class Notes

As you work on your final papers, you might find these notes from our class surveillance vs. privacy debate useful. Thanks to our three notetakers for capturing the debate so well!

Below you’ll find my photos of our final class activity, the one that asked you to identify and then group “enduring understandings” about cryptography that you felt were important to remember. Click on any of the photos to see a larger version.

Episode 26 – Operation Vula

by Miles Borowsky

Touch-Tone TelephoneThis podcast explains the story and history behind Operation Vula: a communications system between underground anti-apartheid activists in South Africa and their exiled leaders in London and Zambia. They used telephone dial-tones and an electronic one-time pad encryption software to send messages via payphone between London and South Africa. The success of this project was vital to the downfall of apartheid; it allowed for almost real-time communications while previously, they had been forced to use cumbersome and lengthy methods of communication.   

Works Cited 

Garrett, R. K., & Edwards, P. N. (2007). Revolutionary Secrets: Technology’s Role in the South African Anti-Apartheid Movement. Social Science Computer Review, 25(1), 13–26.   

Schneier, B. (2013, December 26). Operation Vula. Retrieved October 21, 2019, from  

Jenkin, T. (n.d.). Tim Jenkin: Talking with Vula. Retrieved October 21, 2019, from 

Vermeulen, J. (2015, July 12). How the ANC sent encrypted messages in the fight against apartheid. Retrieved October 21, 2019, from  

Toupin, S. (2017, May 9). Hacking Apartheid – Cryptography Tools for Activists. Retrieved October 21, 2019, from 

Audio Sources 

Retrieved from 

  • Piano Melody 2 
  • Incidental Music 

Retrieved from 

  • Creative Minds 
  • Sad Day 

Retrieved from 

  • The Circles of Life 

More information about Operation Vula…


Image: “Touch-tone telephone,” snowmentality, Flickr (CC BY-SA)

Episode 25 – The Ave Maria Cipher

by Ellie Ragiel

Johannes Trithemius was a 16th century monk and Renaissance man who made a lasting impact on the study of cryptography, but one that is laden with secrecy and tales of dark magic. It has been widely debated whether his work the Steganographia is a book about cryptography, encrypted itself to look like magic, or whether it is just a book of witchcraft, spells, and spirits. Nonetheless, his following work, the Polygraphia, is widely accepted as the first official written work on cryptography, and the Ave Maria cipher and Trithemius square described in this work have lasting implications for cipher systems such as the famed Vigenère cipher.

Works Cited

de Leeuw, M. & Maria, K. (2007). The history of information security: A comprehensive handbook. San Diego, California: Elsevier Science.

Khan, D. (1967). The codebreakers: The story of secret writing. New York: Macmillan. pp.130-137.

Johannes Trithemius. (1851). In Notes and Queries (Vol. 4). Retrieved from Vanderbilt Library online database.

Reeds, J. (1998). Solved: The ciphers in book III of Thrithemius’s Steganographia. Cryptologia, 22(4), 291. Retrieved from Vanderbilt Library online database.

Shumaker, W. (n.d.). Renaissance curiosa: John Dee’s conversations with angels, Girolamo Cardano’s horoscope of Christ, Johannes Trithemius and cryptography, George Dalgarno’s Universal language. Binghamton, N.Y: Center for Medieval and Early Renaissance Studies.

Audio Sources

Retrieved from

  • Record Scratch
  • Crowd Cheering

Retrieved from

  • Schubert Ave Maria
  • Dun dun dun
  • Piano Theme Mystical
  • Ambient Background Music


Detail of tomb relief of Johannes Trithemius, public domain, Wikimedia Commons

Season 3 Introduction

A cryptic note found in the pocket of a dead man in the woods. Secret messages encoded using telephone touch tones, passed between anti-apartheid activists in South Africa and London. A German monk whose encryption techniques had him accused of witchcraft. A team of codebreakers who cracked a World War Two cipher machine without ever having seen one.

Welcome to Season 3 of One-Time Pod, a podcast on the history of cryptography produced by students in Derek Bruff’s first-year writing seminar at Vanderbilt University. Each episode considers a different code or cipher, how it works, and why it’s interesting.

For more on Dr. Bruff’s first-year seminar on cryptography, visit the course homepage: For more on his podcast assignment, read his 2019 blog post, “Building a Better Podcast Assignment,” available here: And for more examples of student-produced audio, check out Dr. Bruff’s other podcast, VandyVox:

Intro music: “To Be Decided,” Mystery Mammal, CC-BY

Online Participation Self-Assessment

Your online participation in this course contributes 10% of your final course grade. Now that the course is almost over, I’m asking you to review your online participation in this course, compare your participation to that of your peers, and assess your contributions to the learning community. Please give yourself an online participation score between 0 and 10 points, and email it to me with a justification (a paragraph or two). If I think your score is reasonable, given your justification, I’ll use that as your online participation grade. Your online participation self-assessment is due at the start of class on Wednesday, December 4th.

To assess your online participation, focus on blog posts and bookmarks on Diigo, as well as other forms of online participation, if any. In each of these areas, I usually ask you for specific contributions — posts that responded to particular questions, or bookmarks about specific topics, or tags and comments that fit certain parameters. As you look over your contributions to the course, keep these requests in mind. Also consider how your online participation contributed to the learning of your peers in the course.

We the Jury

“Beyond a reasonable doubt” is the standard upheld in the United States criminal justice system by which a defendant can be found guilty. Although we will not be conducting a murder trial in the classroom, serving as the jury, there are still certain standards by which I will be evaluating the arguments of the debate. Strong cases can be made for both sides of the question of electronic surveillance in the interest of national security, as we have delved into over the course of this semester. Various opinions on this matter depend on people’s differing political affiliations, prior experiences and moral values. Because attitudes are highly divergent and very personal, debaters often become emotional as they attempt to defend their standpoint. Although passion is very easy to detect and makes a speaker emphatic, it does not necessarily render their argument better. A sound argument, much like in the courtroom, requires hard evidence. There are a lot of unknowns and misconceptions with regards to electronic surveillance because of the secure nature of the act. Many arguments against security make assumptions and suggest hypotheticals about the unnecessary and invasive nature of surveillance. Likewise, arguments for security make assumptions and suggest hypotheticals about the necessity and efficacy of surveillance. As the jury, the only way to make a fair evaluation is to remain objective. A legitimate argument is backed by statistics, facts and hard evidence that can be verified, and as such that is what I will be listening for in the class debate.

Privacy Is a Right, Not a Privilege 

I take issue with the way this debate is often framed: privacy versus security. It’s misleading to suggest that privacy is directly opposed to security. A more apt name would be privacy versus surveillance. My point in these semantics is that, even given a wide latitude to monitor the people of this country, government surveillance doesn’t necessarily make us any safer. The American people are and have been under what some would consider heavy surveillance for a few years and it has not demonstrably impacted our security. What makes us think that expanding the reach of that surveillance would suddenly be more effective? The likelihood of some bad actor within the government abusing their power to invade the privacy of American citizens, as has already happened with the NSA, is too great to justify whatever security may or may not be gained by giving that bad actor more tools to work with.

Secondly, regardless of the effectiveness of surveillance, privacy is a right. Plain and simple. By surveilling the American citizenry, the government violates that right on a national scale. I think that the right to privacy should be more clearly stated in the constitution, but it is alluded to in the fourth amendment, and it is clearly a principle on which this country was founded, even if the founding fathers didn’t think of it in terms of privacy because this debate looked different due to differences between then and now in technology. The intent behind “no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause” is pretty hard to mistake: it is a breach of privacy, and therefore a breach of our rights as citizens of this country to be subjected to involuntary surveillance by our government.

Is there a middle ground?

The topic for this debate is crucial because it is so real within our lives. Since the rise of the truth in the summer of 2013, more and more people have become concerned with their own privacy, while many others ponder at what the balance should be. As part of the jury, the main thing I want to focus on is this: how would the average citizen react or respond to this argument made by either opposition?

Arguments are generally settled by those directly affected by changes as a result of the debate, hence the role of the jury. For either side, I want to see something  compelling that goes beyond what I would know as a typical individual in America. Why do we need surveillance? Why do we need privacy? To what extent are the two allowed to intertwine and mesh together? Are they even allowed to be in the same conversation, working with each other? If so, how would that possibility play out in our society today? Are there any real and viable alternatives to the mass surveillance we have today? Rather than looking for an answer as concrete as one is better than the other, we want to look at how we can take benefits from both sides and possibly put them together.

The Importances of Both Stances

As a note-taker, I am a neutral person who simply wants to make sure that the most important aspects of the debate are discussed. With that being said, I have two questions. Has there been a period in history where something similar to this has happened and has gone very badly or extremely well? Exactly what boundaries would the government be allowed to overstep before it is seen as “citizens’ privacy is not always respected?”

I think the first one is very crucial to ask because everyone knows that you must learn from your mistakes. Another saying is that “nothing is new under the sun.” So if in the past, something similar has happened and the outcome was not favorable, it would be very smart to not have it happened again. And according to the second saying, it most likely has already happened, and if it stopped and is not currently happening, was it for the better?

The second question is important because boundaries must be set in place, but with the US being made of different people with differing opinions, these said boundaries would be very hard to establish. There are those who are very open with their personal lives, and does not mind if the government does a little snooping if it means that they are being protected. However, there are some people with secrets (whether good or bad) who just want to keep their secrets hidden. So exactly where exactly is the line drawn to prevent the government from merely occasionally invading citizens’ privacy to comletely abusing their power?

Surveillance Must Be Reined In

The privacy of American citizens should be prioritized over government surveillance efforts, even in the interests of national security. First, the right to privacy is an unalienable right that goes in tandem with, or could even be seen as the obvious and necessary inverse of, the right to free speech. Even if American’s don’t realize why this is a right they need to have—or think they have “nothing to hide”—a rhetoric that is often used in this debate, that line of thinking is a slippery slope. Just because someone can’t see how they could use a right in that moment does not mean it should be taken away from them.

Second, even if citizen’s surveillance data is being collected solely in service to law enforcement and national security efforts—which, in many cases, other tactics prove just as successful as information gathering to solving—the government should not have this much power go unchecked. As the NSA is part of the executive branch, it is a gross overreach of this one branch of government on the citizenry that needs to be balanced and overseen, to ensure that only true suspects are being surveilled and not just every citizen. Also, it is important to remember that real humans do this work, and there are always bad actors that abuse the system—for example, NSA workers that were reported to have been using their credentials to spy on ex-girlfriends. These kinds of practices are another reason why government surveillance efforts and the NSA should not be given any kind of wide latitude to surveille, and must be reined in.

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