The History and Mathematics of Codes and Code Breaking

Tag: encryptions

Ethical Implications of Wartime Actions

When Zimmerman was sworn in, America rejoiced at what they thought was going to be a new era of German diplomacy, and the greater likelihood of peace in Europe.   But little did they realize that the new foreign minister was intent on increasing Germany’s aggression. Two years into the war, Zimmerman successfully lobbied for a lift on the ban on unrestricted submarine warfare. He believed that a new fleet of U-boats could lead to Britain’s surrender within six months; the only issue was America’s neutrality. This new move would almost certainly push America’s allegiance to the Allies, so Zimmerman devised a cunning plan: he would persuade Mexico to declare war on America, which would allow time for Germany to win in Europe and prepare for the American campaign. But thanks to a clever move by British ships, Germany’s underwater cables had been severed before the war, so Zimmerman’s encrypted telegram to Mexico was intercepted by the UK.

Admiral Hall’s cryptanalysis deciphered parts of the telegram, and correctly deduced what Zimmerman’s plan was. But Hall decided to not to tell America for two reasons: he did not want to miss vital information and give America an incomplete message, and he did not want the Germans to figure out that Britain had broken their encrypted messages. Admiral Hall was justified in his decision to not give the message immediately to America.

The decision to allow unrestricted U-boat warfare would have gone through in either scenario, and such a drastic move on Germany’s part might have been enough to push America to fight for the Allies. But the more important reason that Hall’s decision was justified was that Hall was sacrificing the short-term consequences for the long term gains. If the Germans knew that Britain could crack their codes, that would have been enough of an impetus for the Germans to develop a stronger encryption; thus, the British would have lost a major source of intelligence that would have proven disastrous, possibly fatal later in the war. The long-term effects of being able to know the plans of your enemy, their locations, and modes of attack are invaluable; either way, when America chose to remain neutral after the resuming of unrestricted boat warfare, Hall exploited the Zimmerman telegram to pull America into the war.

Although Hall’s decision may seem unethical on the surface, the long-term benefits significantly outweigh the short-term negatives.

Weak or Bust: Why the Strength of an Encryption Matters

There are two reasons as to why a weak encryption can be worse than no encryption at all: the first being a sense of overconfidence that can prove fatal if the encryption is decrypted and the second tipping off decryptors who often become more cautious and further scrutinize your messages. As explicitly outlined in the book, Mary Queen of Scot’s overconfidence clearly demonstrates the negatives of not creating a strong cipher. By disregarding caution and placing misguided faith in a weak cipher, she inadvertently revealed more information than she would have had she exercised caution. It’s also necessary to note that Mary Queen believed she had a strong cipher, thus providing one more reason as to why caution must always be exercised even if you believe your code to be unbreakable. This strain of thought can actually be applied to a multitude of situations: when engaging in a secretive activity or one that you would not prefer others to know of, it’s better to err on the side of caution.

But perhaps more importantly, a bad cipher may warn the enemy of an impending code. A seemingly legible message that holds a deeper meaning may be more deeply scrutinized if the decryptor suspects a cipher at play. This can be even more dangerous as a heightened sense of awareness and caution could lead to both direct and indirect long-term effects for sender and recipient. Thus, no encryption can often be more effective than a poorly-made one.

It’s necessary in an increasingly complex and secretive world that people realize that whatever codes they create can be broken by online tools accessible to billions. It is both important and necessary to exercise restraint and caution when sending hidden messages – failure to do so may result in harsher penalties than if you had not attempted to encode your message at all.

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