The History and Mathematics of Codes and Code Breaking

Tag: Crypto wars

Episode 39 – The Crypto Wars

by Aliyah Weaver

MYK78 Clipper ChipThis episode of One-Time Pod focuses on the 1990s “crypto wars,” a power struggle between the government and the American public. How much privacy does the general American public deserve in terms of encryption, and what are the limits of the government’s surveillance of the American public?


Bankston, K., Kehl, D., Wilson, A. (2015). Doomed to Repeat history? Lessons from the Crypto Wars of the 1990s. New America. Accessed March 30, 2021.

Freeh, L. J. (1998). Statement for the Record of Louis J. Freeh, Director Federal Bureau of Investigation Before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence [Speech transcript]. The Avalon Project by Yale Law School. Accessed March 30, 2021.

Lewis, J. A. (2021). The Crypto Wars Are Over. Center for Strategic and International Studies. Accessed March 30, 2021.

Peterson, A. (2019). Today’s Internet users are still being hurt By ’90s-era U.S. encryption policies. The Washington Post. Accessed March 30, 2021.

Sound effects: Apple iMovie stock sound effects

Image: MYK78 Clipper Chip,” Travis Goodspeed, Flickr CC BY

Hall’s Choice

Admiral Hall of Room 40 – Britain’s analog to the American Black Chamber – was faced with an impossible choice during World War I: immediately release information of the Zimmermann Note to the Americans and risk the Germans developing new, more secure ciphers, or holding on to the note until the perfect moment, potentially risking thousands of innocent Americans. While Hall’s final decision was morally duplicitous at best, it was certainly the more ethical of the two options, and one that, on net, saved more lives and brought about the end of World War I.

The choice to release the Zimmermann Note to the Americans was one of the most pivotal decisions made during the Great War. To fully comprehend the implications of Hall’s decision, we must analyze the logical end of both options he was presented with. First, we’ll consider the case where Hall releases the Note immediately. As history has proven, upon receiving the Zimmermann Note, American politicians almost unanimously motioned to go to war, Woodrow Wilson even reneging on his campaign promises and urging Congress to approve an official declaration of war. Of course, such a momentous decision would be heard the world over, documented by every major news source on the planet, especially in Germany; these stories would likely also detail the reason why the United States changed its mind: the Zimmermann Note. Following this, it would not take the German government very long to deduce that their encryption techniques had been broken, forcing them to engineer new ways to encipher their confidential information. By forcing German intelligence to upgrade in such a way, Great Britain would have been swamped with a sudden influx of cipher text that needed to be decoded, cipher texts that would demand resources to decipher. In this way, the British would be stuck playing intelligence catch-up, as the Germans would thus be able to their troops around freely without the Allies knowing. This would clearly lead to a colossal loss of life on the Allied side.

On the other hand, history has shown that Hall’s strategy ultimately paid off, and that the number of civilian ships sunk by the German’s aggressive UBoat campaign were few and far between. Therefore, in true utilitarian fashion, history will and must regard the choices of Admiral Hall as ethical insofar as they mitigated an excessive loss of life and expedited the end of the war.

From Voxcoder to SIGSALY

The Voxcoder was one of the most interesting things I have ever heard of. The origin of the machine, being just a voice changer/imitator, really made me wonder what the creator had in mind when he made the machine. Being able to replicate a human or animal voice opens up so many pathways such as deception, manipulation, and somewhat discretion. I was extremely surprised when the machine was able to replicate the cow noise almost perfectly. It is also kind of scary considering that a machine can produce convincing human and animal noises. All I could imagine was hearing a a series of growls while walking through the house. After the Voxcoder was evolved into the Sigsaly the organization and complexity of the system used for conferences was baffling. There were so many steps to a single conference that it was sometimes hard to keep up with what part of the process the podcast was explaining. I think its cool but also limited that the conferences functioned by mixing and masking human voices with random noise. Its an incredible feat but if the Germans were able to figure out what was happening and develop a method of decoding it, the Allies would be screwed. It would be a more incredible feat if the Allies were able to completely scramble and distort the messages without having to mask it behind random noise.

Illegal Math: Fact not Fiction

I chose the beginning of chapter 17, when Marcus and Ange went to the journalist, Barbara Stratford, to expose the rampant abuses of power that were occurring in San Francisco. During this, they discovered that Barbara herself had covered the original ‘crypto wars’ in the 90’s. Barbara describes how the government had labeled cryptography as a munition and made it illegal to use it or export it, all in the name of national security. While I thought this was really interesting, the next sentence blew my mind. This means that we had ILLEGAL math. MATH, made illegal.

Can you imagine there being a time when certain equations and formulae were considered illegal? This interests me most because less than two decades after this illegal math, we are taking a class specifically about this illegal math. We’ve seen in class how cryptography has been used throughout history, and it always has been, and probably always will be, a part of life in government. However, it was always that it was only accessible to the wealthy, and those in government. No one else could afford the knowledge required, so we couldn’t keep secrets from the government. With the rapid spread of computers and advancement in technology, suddenly average citizens could afford to encode their messages, and it is very interesting to me that the government was so threatened by this that they felt the need to ban this knowledge.

Of course, it is also my opinion that, like Prohibition, this just proliferated the use of cryptography, but with even less government control. My favorite part of class so far has been our discussions about the intersection of cryptography, government, and privacy, which is why Little Brother, and especially this chapter hold my interest so well. With cryptography and cryptanalysis becoming ever more advanced, it will be exciting to see how the government handles all this as well.

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