Cryptography

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Hall: Ruthless or Ethical?

Late into the first world war, top level German officer Arthur Zimmerman wanted to assert Germany dominance with a major offensive move. He wanted to start unrestricted U-Boat Warfare. He knew that a potential outcome of this would be the United States entering a war. His plan for combatting thisEthical was an alliance with Mexico. If the Americans entered the war, Mexico would ally with Germany and, using funds from the Germans, invade America to reclaim Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico. Zimmerman sent this message as a telegram that was intercepted by the British. This message was then quickly deciphered enough to crack its basic message, but not completely deciphered, and brought to British Admiral Hall. To the cryptographers’ surprise, Hall did nothing with the message. He believed that it was not worth it to convey these messages to the Americans because there could be vital information in the non-deciphered parts and because if America started reacting to Germany’s plans, it would be revealed that Germany’s encryption had been broken, compromising the Biriths’s intelligence position. It is important to wonder whether hall did the ethical  thing in this situation. I believe that Hall’s actions were ethical if he intended to do the most good for the most amount of people. 

I look at ethics in a utilitarian way. If an action is intended to accomplish  the most good possible for the most amount of people possible it is ethical. However, if an action is intended to benefit a small party but be harmful to the larger group, it is unethical. Hall’s position could have been unethical. By not sending America the decipher telegram, he was basically allowing America to be provoked by unrestricted U-Boat Warfare. Essentially, that means he was going to allow a deadly attack to happen for America to come into the war. If Hall was doing this just because he didn’t want to have to deal with Germany knowing that Britain had broken their encryption, this would be unethical.

However, the argument could be made that Hall actually was doing the most good for the most amount of people. It is possible that the British being able to decipher German messages was actually leading to lives being saved on a daily basis. It is possible that, had Germany stopped using their encryption because Britain could decipher it, more lives would be lost than in one unrestricted U-Boat attack. Additionally, Hall chose to hold the message rather than send it to the Americans because he thought that there may be vital information in the parts that hadn’t been deciphered. He did this on January 16th, leaving plenty of time for the whole code to be cracked before February 1st, when the U-boat attacks would begin. In this case, it seems that Hall is making sure everyone is safe and acting in the interests of the public. Therefore, I would argue that when Hall made this seemingly harmful decision, he was probably acting ethically by drying to do the most good for the most amount of people. 

Admiral Hall's Ethics

I found the first question quite interesting as it related to a few topics that I discussed in my Ethics class of junior year. When is something morally justifiable? And, is a bad deed moral if it leads to the greater good? Obviously Admiral William Hall would argue that not telling President Woodrow Wilson about the United States’ potential danger in order to pull the wool over Germany’s eyes was ethical. He was focused on the greater good. This most closely follows consequentialism; the idea that the morality of an action lies in the consequences it bears. I have always disagreed with the ideas of consequentialism. To be completely frank, I think they are a bit ridiculous.

The results of an action are extremely important in determining the morality of the deed, however the results are not everything. An action can, in itself, be ethical or unethical. Certain things, at least in my opinion, are never up for debate. For instance murder is always unethical. Even if something good came from murder, the action would never be moral. Who are we to decide the value of a life? William Hall clearly had no issue valuing human lives. He saw-- what could have been-- death and destruction and found that potential outcome of his actions to outweigh the more probable consequences. In the end, his decision paid off. However, the decision he made, although great, will never be ethical. 

 

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.

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