The History and Mathematics of Codes and Code Breaking

Tag: collaboration

How can we make security more “secure”?

On page 99 of Little Brother by Cory Doctorow, Marcus delineates the flaws of cryptology and how ultimately cracking the Enigma led to the victory against the Nazis in WWII. One of the flaws was secrecy; after Alan Turing cracked the Enigma, any Nazi message could be deciphered because “Turning was smarter than the guy who thought up Enigma” (99). As a result, it sparked the thought that any security system is “vulnerable to someone smarter than you coming up with a way of breaking it” (99). Bruce Schneier also refers to flaws of a security system in his Afterword, explaining that it is useless for you to come up with a system entirely by yourself because there is no way for you to detect flaws in your creation. You are limited to your knowledge. Outsiders with different levels of thinking would help by suggesting different views in which people can think of in order to break the system.

I think that this concept is interesting; you are limited by what you know. And everyone around us knows something that we don’t. Recently I read a passage in Harvard Business Review on how companies and organizations should welcome people in different kinds of fields to evaluate an idea because they won’t think the same way that people in a particular company does; a mathematician thinks differently than a historian does, and the distance between their thinking has the potential to bolster ideas, limit flaws, and suggest new ideas that haven’t been thought of yet. Could this be the way to strengthen our current security systems? What kind of people do we need to evaluate them? How many people do we need (until we pass the point to where the security measure is too widely known and therefore ironically more vulnerable)?

I believe this is one of the fundamental qualities of Cryptology and all security measures: how do we know a system is safe to use? Truth is, we really don’t know, but we can always come closer by cross referencing and past experiences, allowing security to get better and better with each step of the way.


Collaboration Wins the War

Allied cryptanalysts succeeded over German cryptographers largely because of collaboration. It was not just one country working against the Germans, but the entire Allied powers.

The chain of collaboration began with the French: though they didn’t feel the need to pursue cryptanalysis of the Germans, they provided the initial information necessary to do so. After World War I, the French thought that further war was impossible, so when provided with Hans-Thilo Schmidt’s information on the workings of the Enigma machine, they passed them on to Poland. Poland did face an immediate threat, however, in the form of Russia. A Polish cryptanalyst, Rejewski, did much of the work at the front end of the effort to crack Enigma. His methods, when Poland suspected that they would no longer be able to continue covert cryptanalysis, were then passed on to England. Alan Turing and the others at Bletchley Park were able to use this information as a springboard for cracking the evolving Enigma.

“Handshake” by USMC photo by Cpl. Paula M. Fitzgerald – Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Without collaboration, the decipherment of the Enigma would not have occurred, or at least not in the manner and order of events in which it occurred. The Polish would not have received an Enigma machine if the French had not given it to them, thinking that the Polish could better use the information. The Polish knew that they couldn’t continue cryptanalyzing, and instead of simply shutting down operations, they pass the information on, so that the final goal can be realized. If individual countries had cared more about their own fame than the bigger picture, the war might have ended drastically differently.

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