Cryptography

The History and Mathematics of Codes and Code Breaking

Tag: ethics Page 1 of 2

Ethics in Wartime

Would you sacrifice one life to save a thousand? It is a morally stupefying question that has gone against our societies ethics. Do we favor the collective good over the good of the individual? However ambiguous the answer is during peace, I believe the answer is clear in wartime. The collective good takes precedent. Admiral William Hall knew this to be true when making the decision to keep the Zimmerman telegram a secret.

The implications of the Zimmerman telegram were possibly multiple civilian casualties as a result of unrestricted U-boat warfare. Admiral Hall knew this and weighed his options. He knew if he passed on the information to President Wilson, the Germans would inevitable know that the British had cracked their code. This with the fact that Admiral Hall knew that the U-boat warfare would most likely incite The U.S. to enter the war all factored into his decision to keep the intelligence a secret.

Admiral William Halls decision reminded me of the movie The Imitation Game staring Benedict Cumberbatch. In the final scene after the British cryptanalysis team crack the seemingly unbreakable Enigma code machine, Alan Turing (played by Benedict Cumberbatch) realizes they cannot immediately act on every piece of information, even if it means saving hundreds of life's. In a captivating moment the characters agree that the outcome of the war depends on the secrecy of their work's completion. In closing, I believe that Admiral Hall's decision was ethical in the time and place he made it, even if today we might regard it conversely.

 

Ethics Versus Strategy

I believe that the decision taken by Admiral William Hall was the right one, even though it was unethical. While it was morally wrong for him to let civilians die for a strategic gain, it was the right course of action to take for a man in his position. He was responsible for winning the war for his country. As an Admiral, he was first a patriot and then maybe a philanthropist. In an epoch of war, his loyalty and compassion was largely towards the citizens of his own country. He believed that the involvement of America in the World War was imminent which meant that giving them this telegram would bear no strategic advantage. Sacrificing a few civilian lives to potentially save several others over the course of the War by intercepting and decrypting German messages seemed like a good bargain to him.

The reason why the unethical choice in this case seemed to be the right choice was that he was in a situation where everyone else seemed to be lacking moral fiber. The Germans, his enemies in the War, were willing to attack civilians and break the rules set up by consensus in international court. To try to follow your conscience in a time of war will most likely cause you to the lose the war since a sense of self preservation always prevails over ethics.

Admiral Hall's Choice to Consider the Long Term Threats to a Nation.

Admiral William Hall decided to keep the information that the English broke the enciphered Zimmerman telegram a secret because he believed that the knowledge for decrypting the telegram would be an asset to the them in the near future. Those who were thoughtful of the future such as Admiral Hall would believe this choice to be ethical. This choice is very strategic and could be useful if the Germans continued to pass similarity sensitive and important information with the same encryption key. Having the ability to decipher these messages could save the lives of many civilians if the Germans eventually decided to attack. Through this lens it is reasonable to consider the decision as ethical because it is in the interest of the public and benefits their well being.

However, when considering the immediate importance of the content within the Zimmerman telegram, it makes sense that the choice to withhold the information seems unethical. The sensitive information about unrestricted U-boat warfare and threat of Mexican aggression posed immediate harm to many civilians in American and at sea. Hall’s choice seems indifferent to the lives current at stake and prioritized the future of a nation more than the nation’s current safety. It can be argued that the welfare of the nation’s future is dependent on that nation’s present welfare and that Admiral Hall should have responded with more urgency to the immediate threat to the people. His choice can be seen as ethical or unethical depending on what one prioritizes more.

 

Cryptography by the People for the People

The passage that stuck out to me the most from the novel was Marcus’ description of the use and benefits of cryptography from page 57. Even though it’s at the beginning of the book, this passage gets to the core of how cryptography works for us today. Cryptography is used by everyone because is as accessible to everyone. Thankfully, our government does not have a monopoly on cryptography; “the math behind crypto is good and solid, and you and me get access to the same crypto that banks and the National Security Agency use” (Westerfeld 57). Because it is so widely used, we can be sure of its effectiveness.
The quote continues to discuss how cryptography is useful to us today. Even if we do not have anything to hide, “there’s something really liberating about having some corner of your life that’s yours, that no one gets to see except you.” This reminds me of the article I read regarding the actions of the National Security Agency and invasion of civilian privacy due to bulk data collection. The fact that personal information as well as government intelligence is encrypted using the same means shows that the government has access to all of our information as well. This is not a bad thing; access to this information can be useful in ensuring peace. The question still remains: when does government access of individual data cross the line from protection to trespassing?

Not Quite Like the Movies

For as long as I can remember, there's always been one thing about action movies that has bothered me above all else: while the bad guys can do whatever they want, without worrying about who they hurt, the good guys have to catch up to the bad guys while also attempting to contain collateral damage. It seemed so unfair to me, but the good guys wouldn't be good if they hurt everyone in their wake (which is one of the reasons why the new Superman movie was so disappointing, but I digress).

In the case of German and Allied forces in World War II, we can assume, for argument's sake, that the Germans would be the "bad guys", and the Allied forces would be the "good guys." If the pattern which caused so much of my childhood angst was being followed, it should happen that fighting the good fight would be a hinderance for the Allies. However it had the exact opposite effect. The cause that the Allies were fighting for, and the conviction that they held to complete their cause, was a major factor in their success with cracking the Enigma machine.

Singh mentions himself that motivation is a driving force in cryptography: in periods of peace, cryptographic breakthroughs are so few and far between simply because there is no need for them. In the case of Allied efforts, there was much need to break the Enigma machine. Lives were being lost at an astonishingly fast rate, and without knowledge of German plans, there was little chance for the Allied troops to make any gains. Both the higher ups and the cryptanalysts themselves understood that the stakes were incredibly high, which proved to be an incredibly motivating factor.

The need for information proved to be a very beneficial asset not only motivationally but also resourcefully. Because the Enigma machine was so complex, it required not only a lot of manpower to solve, but also a lot of machinery. Though previously in history there was some hesitation to fund cryptographic efforts, the creation of Bletchley Park is proof that Allied officials saw the need for cryptanalysis as part of their war effort. It's hard to tell how much priority cryptography would have gotten had the situation not been as dire.

The Ethics of Military Cryptography

We ran out of time at the end of class today to wrap up our discussion of the ethics of military cryptography. Sorry about that! I think our in-class activity worked well, but it needed a bit of discussion at the end. In lieu of that discussion, I'll share a few more perspectives on the Zimmerman telegram debate here on the blog.

Claim: Admiral Hall's decision to withhold information from the Americans about the Zimmerman telegram was ethical.

  • In the short run, telling the Americans would have saved lives, but maintaining the ability to decipher German messages would save more lives in the long run.
  • Hall's first responsibility was to his own country, and that country--and its whole way of life--was at risk from German invasion.  That was a bigger risk than the Americans faced, and a more immediate risk.
  • Who were the real bad guys here? It was the Germans who were attacking ships. It was the Germans who were lying to the Americans.
  • The Americans, as it turned out, were going to drag their feet anyway.  Telling them wouldn't have brought them into the war any earlier, and it might have compromised British cryptography efforts.

Claim: Admiral Hall's decision to withhold information from the Americans about the Zimmerman telegram was NOT ethical.

  • By not telling the Americans, people definitely died. Had the British told the Americans and the Germans realized their codes were broken, more lives might have been lost in the long run—but, in the short run, people definitely died.
  • What England did was as unethical as what Germany did—manipulating the Americans for their own ends.
  • Britain wanted America as an ally, which is a trust-based relationship. Hall was keeping secrets from the American government and undermining the trust between the nations.
  • Hall could have justified his decision by saying that he was doing what was, in his mind, best for America. However, that wasn't his place--it was the responsibility of the American government to make such decisions.
  • Didn’t Hall plan to let the submarine warfare happen so that America would be prompted into war? Dragging more people into a conflict is only going to result in more deaths.

Keep in mind that, in an effort to tell engaging and accessible stories, the author sometimes omits some of the complexities of the issues he discusses. As you read, consider ways that you can approach these issues from multiple perspectives.

The Road Less Traveled By

Admiral Hall's decision not to inform the U.S. about the impending U-boat attacks was complex, to say the least. The reasons why he would share his new intelligence with President Wilson are clear--the U.S. and Britain were allies to some degree, and it might possibly bring the U.S. into the war. However, I find his reasoning against sharing this new intel to be quite persuasive. By sharing the intel, he could lose a valuable asset which could save lives, and he might not even be believed. This is where the issue of ethics comes in.

Sharing the intel on the Germans appears to be the most ethical choice. It does right by an ally, and it saves lives. Then again, the lives possibly lost by this revelation of a way of gathering information could outweigh those saved. Once they found out the British had broken the cipher, the Germans would certainly change their encryption methods, and the flow of information would be cut off. This event could possibly lead to more losses in battle, more lives sacrificed. These two possibilities create the well-known gray area of war, in which many ask, "which path will save the most lives?" There was no true way to know which way to go, no way of figuring out just exactly how many lives would be lost either way. Admiral Hall was stuck between a rock and a hard place, his own personal catch-22.

Despite his dilemma, Admiral Hall, in my opinion, still managed to make the most ethical choice. Not only did he save the lives of his people, but he also saved the lives of the endangered Americans. By choosing to keep his intel secret, but orchestrating its revelation by way of a different channel, he managed to choose the path that wasn't apparent to many others. He kept his decryption success secret, and caused the American government to learn the true content of the telegram through a completely non-incriminating source: a mistake in the enemy's actions. Had he not done this, I might say his actions were unethical, that he should have saved the lives most definitely in danger. However, by managing to protect both potential victims from harm, I believe that Admiral Hall took the most ethical path available.

Great or Good: Ethics and the Zimmermann Telegram

While Admiral Hall had some justification for his actions, his decision to keep important information from President Woodrow Wilson and the American government was unethical in the sense that passing that information on could have potentially spared lives. That being said, Admiral Hall had some reasonable justifications for acting in the way that he did. Hall intended to hide the fact that Britain had cracked Germany’s in order to prevent them from changing their cipher. He also came up with a plan to make it seem as if the information had leaked from Mexico so that Britain was not suspected of intercepting the message. Even so, deliberately keeping important information from the US was unethical.

The Zimmermann telegram brings up an incredibly controversial and open-ended debate: can it be justified that the lives of a few be deliberately risked to save the lives of more? The Zimmermann telegram was specifically about unrestricted use of German U-Boats and US involvement in the war, but it ties into overarching themes of wartime sacrifice and the value of truth within government and military. I believe that such sensitive information should be shared as soon as possible with all of those who may be affected by it. Granted, if it had not been for the ingenuity of Britain’s Room 40, Admiral Hall would not even have access to the information which he withheld from the United States. In the end, though, he did have access to this information and knowingly and unethically withheld it from the United States.

The Wartime Gray Zone - Ethics and the Zimmerman Telegram

British Admiral William Hall ultimately made the decision to keep the United States in the dark about the contents of the Zimmerman telegram, but was it ethical? I think the answer depends on whose perspective you view it from.

From the perspective of Great Britain and their military efforts, it was the ethical (and right) thing to do. If Britain made the decrypted telegraph public, or even just gave it to the Americans, Germany would know that their encryption had been cracked, and Britain would immediately lose the cryptographic advantage that they had just gained. Since America was not officially in the war, and was neutral, Britain had no real loyalty to warn President Wilson. Furthermore, the unrestricted submarine warfare would start whether the Americans knew about it beforehand or not, and the British had not completely finished deciphering the message before that date came and went.

From a more global perspective of humanity, it was not an ethical decision. Admiral Hall had the opportunity to warn the United States about attacks that might harm or kill Americans, but he did not. His motives were also partly selfish for Britain, wanting American to join the war and the Allies, giving them a much-needed boost on the European front. In my opinion, a military alliance where countries don't share intelligence about possible attacks against their allies is not a good relationship and is an unethical way to conduct such a "friendship."

Ethics in the midst of a war are never black and white, and the Zimmerman telegram is no exception. Admiral Hall made a strategic and ethically arguable decision in keeping the telegram from the Americans, but William the human made an unethical decision in choosing to not potentially save the lives of innocent people.

Victory At All Costs

The Zimmerman telegram could be described as the key leading to an allied victory and the end of the war. However, after being deciphered, Admiral William Hall decided to keep America in the dark, withholding the contents of the telegram from President Wilson. Despite the immediate danger this posed to the United States, I believe Admiral Hall made the correct decision. Disclosing the contents of the telegram would have alerted the Germans to the vulnerabilities in their encryption, leading them to create more secure ciphers and eventually cutting off British access to German information.

Essentially, this boils down to whether or not "the end justifies the means". Although this paved the way to an allied victory, keeping the telegram a secret endangered countless american lives. One could argue Admiral Hall's decision was extremely unethical, as it unnecessary risked peoples' lives. Needless deaths must be avoided, even if it leads to a faster victory. The means are simply too cruel to justify the end. However, keeping the telegram a secret potentially changed the course of the war. Although American involvement was believed to ensure an allied victory, it was not guaranteed. The British access to German intelligence proved to be invaluable to their war effort, and saving more lives was not as important as keeping these intelligence lines open. With this intelligence, the British forces could always stay one step ahead of the German offensive. This aided greatly in preventing the Germans from dominating the war, and essentially allowed the allied forces to emerge victory. Thus, safekeeping this crucial line of intel proved much more important than saving more american lives. In addition, Admiral Hall's plans to intercept the German's telegram in Mexico would lead to President Wilson learning of the contents of the Zimmerman telegram. Although he would learn of its contents late, the effect of the telegram still stirred America to action. Thus, immediately sending the Zimmerman telegram to America was not even completely necessary. Overall, victory was the main objective, and thus the end did justify the means.

Page 1 of 2

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén