The History and Mathematics of Codes and Code Breaking

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Nothing to Fear but Fear Itself

In Little Brother, Marcus, the main character, frequently argues with his father over the matter of whether we should give up some of our personal freedoms and privacies in order to grant more power to those seeking to prevent harm from threats like terrorism. It's a difficult debate that I have occasionally had with myself, and I've never quite come to a conclusion, but in one of those arguments, Marcus raises a great point: are we really hurting the terrorists by adding security?

The main goal of terrorism is there in the name: terror. They want to scare people-- to make them feel unsafe. That's why their attacks always come in such violent and public forms. One terrorist organization cannot possibly hope to kill each and every citizen of the United States of America, but they could quite possibly make us all fear for our lives.

Marcus's point is this: by adding more checkpoints, more data mining, more tracking, more security, less privacy, are we really acting against the terrorists? Would you really feel safer if the police considered you a potential terrorist and had eyes, ears, and possibly guns pointed in your direction at all times? If they consider you and everyone you know a suspect, then you yourself might begin to suspect those around you.

Suddenly, everyone you see on the street is a potential murderer.

Suddenly, you aren't sure if you should eat at a particular restaurant because there aren't any open seats near the door. What if someone inside started shooting?

Suddenly, you have to think long and hard about accepting a job offer because you would have to take the subway on your commute. Sure, the pay is better, but what if a bomb went off while you were underground?

In an effort to prevent terrorist attacks, law enforcement can inadvertently carry out the end goal of those attacks: terror.


Reimann Sum(feat. Technology)

Technology has quite literally transformed our lives. We live in an age of undeniable prosperity and freedom, where even our poorest live a better life than ancient kings. But in recent years the very technologies that we use for pleasure have been turned against us by governments and bad-faith actors. Of course we don't live in an era of absolute freedom; we agree to cede some of our rights for safety and security. For example, we as a society agree on the use of surveillance cameras as a means of deterrence and protection, but are we ready to make the leap to facial ID? We agree that police should use DNA testing to solve crime, but what about an artificial intelligence reconstruction of a criminal that may present flaws?

One of the most striking paragraphs from Big Brother came up on page 42 when Cory Doctorow discussed how despite advancements in gait recognition software allowed recognition of individuals from their movements, the software's success rate was reduced by any number of external factors including floor material, ankle angle measure, and your energy level. This variability can lead to errors in the system which can often have devastating consequences, especially when peoples' lives and security hang in the balance. The title, I believe, accurately reflects our society's desire to perfect our creations: we input more data points, update more software, create new tools, in a never-ending journey to create the perfect AI tool. But at what point do the ethical complications from such a tool lead to sufficient harm such that an objective cost-benefit analysis would overturn the progress of such a tool? No matter how many data points we inject, a piece of technology will never perfectly emulate the human mind. Every error/mistake that's caused by the inaccuracy of technology threatens our stability, and is only magnified as the scope of the instrument exists. One particular example exists in the NSA. What would be the fallout of an inaccurate terror watch list that was compiled using the latest data points? Although this question is astronomical, it is important that we examine this issue with the utmost scrutiny.

Good Bad Secrets

After San Francisco's security overhaul, one of the latent consequences were all the "not-terrorists" that were caught as a result of the increased surveillance measures. Marcus specifically mentions husbands and wives caught cheating, kids caught sneaking out, and one teenager whose parents discovered he had been visiting the clinic for AIDS medication. These people certainly aren't terrorists - in fact, they're not even drug dealers, thieves, or criminals to any extent. They aren't guilty people, just "people with secrets" (121).

I believe the ability to keep secrets, to some extent, is a completely necessary aspect of any society. I'm not saying that sneaking out is right or wrong, and I'm certainly not saying everyone should cheat on their spouses, but that these are things that should be discovered (or not) and dealt with by the family, not the government. The government has a duty to ensure the safety of its citizens, but only after obtaining consent from its citizens. And in this case, citizens did not give consent to having details of their private, personal lives exposed. Take, for example, a sexually active gay teen growing up in an extremely religious and conservative family. He may need to visit Planned Parenthood to obtain information and medication to stay safe; however, he may not have come out to his parents yet and may not want them knowing this information for a multitude of reasons. Though this case is nuanced, it represents a more broad category of secrets that are kept for the benefit of both the individual and the family. There will always be secrets that need to be kept and actions that need to be hidden, and it is not the government's duty to interfere.

A Trend Towards the Solution

I find it horrible that almost every week I open up my phone to see the news report of some mass shooting. Wether it be one of the gruesome, countless school shootings, or a larger event such as the Las Vegas shooting, the following investigative reports remain the same. In the following days or weeks the police and FBI will eventually uncover online conversations, gun purchases, social media posts, or other digital markers that posed a clear indication of the shooter's intentions. Why do we always find these clues after the fact. After the heartbroken families, crying parents who know they will never see their children again. Always after. Meta data collection and surveillance could completely change the timeline and change that "after", to a "before". If the US government was given permission to use widespread surveillance to stop these atrocities, would that be wrong. Would the parents of victims rather have more privacy, or the chance to see their child grow up. I think it is an easy answer.

Moreover, the already increased amount of electronic surveillance since 9/11 have prevented an attack of that scale from occurring. Even still there has been about 6 major terrorist attacks since, including the Boston Marathon Bombing. So why curtail a movement in the direction of what appears to be the clear solution? National Security is important now more than ever. As criminals and terrorists learn and adapt, so should we.

The Current Role of the Internet

In the beginning of chapter 7, Singh makes several predictions about the future roles of the Internet, many of which are true now. It's definitely true that the Internet has become a significant, if not the most popular medium for exchange, with a massive volume of transactions nowadays taking place solely online. Email has indeed become more popular than conventional mail, and online tax declarations do exist, but for the most part voting still occurs at physical locations. However, Singh's claim that information is the most valuable commodity is the truest and most significant of his claims. Now, a surprising (and scary) amount of information about nearly every individual can be found online, and it doesn't even take that much digging to find it. If you really wanted to, you could easily search through Facebook's repositories of all your information that they collect (and sell!). Digital information has become extremely valuable to advertising companies, because they're willing to pay a lot of money to determine the best way to sell you stuff.

Going along those lines, the elevation of the importance of cryptography is mainly due to the negative consequences of others getting a hold of your information. The most obvious bad example is when identity thefts use your information for malicious reasons, but other concerns include government surveillance and targeted advertising. It's pretty clear why you wouldn't want the government to surveil you, and encryption can help you get around that. It's less clear why targeted advertising is bad, but the reason they can deliver ads tailored to your interests is because they've done extensive research on your browsing history to figure out what you might be interested in, and have probably paid other websites for their data too. While this may not seem terrible, it should be unsettling to everyone that an extensive online profile has been compiled on pretty much everyone who uses the Internet.

A Small Amount of Privacy can be Lost to Feel More Secure

At the Newseum, there is a board that lets people voice their opinion on the privacy versus security debate. The people were told to write down what they would give up to feel safer on a dry erase board. Someone on the board wrote that they would give up some of their privacy. This corresponds with my own beliefs. I think that it is totally fine if the government uses some surveillance techniques. Even though I believe that the government should use surveillance to protect us, they should not be too extreme with the measures that they take. For example, in the novel Little Brother by Cory Doctorow, Marcus’s dad was pulled over multiple times in a single trip even though there were no signs of him being guilty of any crime. This is an example of the government being too extreme with their surveillance methods, I believe that these methods are unnecessary. When the government uses extreme surveillance methods that results in no privacy, everything turns into chaos as shown in Little Brother. There is a loss of trust between the government and civilians. It is the civilian’s jobs to trust that the government will protect them, and it is the government’s job to protect the citizens while not violating all of their privacy.

Changing Opinions on Big Brother

The Newseum's thought provoking display on the questions of privacy and security raise serious questions on the ethical backbone of law enforcement arguments for increased surveillance. My first exposure to this topic was during the summer before my sophomore year. I attended a debate camp at Samford University and practiced speed reading and making quick arguments and rebuttals on the topic of government surveillance.

At the camp many of the arguments made in favor and against curtailing surveillance were the same made in our class discussions. Safety, privacy, and security were all hot words. I noticed truly how much 9/11 had affected our country. People were willing to give up the thing they loved most about a free country, privacy, in order to feel safe. I somewhat agreed with them at the time as, one, I didn't know very much about the issue and, two, I felt that surveillance could only make a person sneak around if they had something to hide.

Upon reading Cory Doctrow's Little Brother and participating in subsequent class discussions, however, I found my beliefs to be quite the opposite. I think government agencies surveillance for abnormalities that represent threats is fine, but when the line is crossed into constant nonconsensual data mining, I begin to disagree. The importance of protecting your own space resonated deeply with me and I realized that privacy does matter. A simple analogy that made clear sense was, as Marcus referred to it in the novel, pooping in Time Square. We value privacy becomes it represents ownership. Citizens want to own their lives and control their actions and, like in the panopticon, it becomes increasingly hard to act the way you want to when presented with the possibility of being constantly watched.

Same Evidence, Different Arguments: Value Conflicts in Little Brother

During the class discussion led by Ms. Galvez, Marcus cited a short passage from the Declaration of Independence to explain his attitude toward the DHA's extensive surveillance techniques and invasion of privacy, stating that the primary role of the government is to ensure the safety and happiness of the people, and that it derives its authority from the consent of the governed. However, in the next class, Mrs. Andersen, the new teacher, uses another quote from the declaration of independence about life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness to support her view that the DHA is justified in extensive surveillance.

The interesting thing about this part of the book is that both sides of the argument are citing the same fundamental idea to support opposite positions; central to both passages is the idea that the government's primary purpose is to ensure the happiness and safety of the people. But this idea, while most people agree with it, can lead to drastically different visions of society depending on your interpretation.

Marcus takes the view that the government's invasion of personal privacy through mass surveillance limits personal freedoms to the point that it is nearly impossible to be happy while not meaningfully improving the safety of the people, so the government is failing to perform its primary duty. In contrast, Mrs. Anderson takes the view that "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" are important in that order. That is, life is more important than liberty, and liberty is more important than happiness, so the government is justified in intensive surveillance to ensure the life of the people, even if it means sacrificing some liberties and happiness.

To resolve this conflict, we must realize that fundamentally, it is a conflict of values. Marcus is willing to sacrifice a marginal increase in safety for his freedom and right to privacy; Mrs. Andersen values her safety to the point that she is willing to sacrifice her privacy and some personal freedoms. I think in the extreme case Doctorow lays out in Little Brother, Marcus is clearly correct; the amount of freedom and happiness sacrificed to the DHS outweighs the tiny increase in safety they provide, but in general, both value rankings are potentially valid, and conversations about how we as a society prioritize our values are essential in settling disagreements and solving problems in the public sphere.

The Great Debate: Privacy vs. Security


The responses on the display varied from milder ones like “some privacy” and “as much as necessary” to stronger ones like “give up privacy for security”. This sort of a spectrum of responses is typically to be expected when it comes to this debate, since the notion of security and surveillance have always been associated with authoritarianism and intrusion, leaving people confused and having them left with the belief that surveillance will always have a negative connotation to it.

The cons of giving weightage to security and surveillance over privacy are brought to light much more often than the pros are; it isn’t fair to always give a biased perspective when it comes to the which one out of the two is more important. Therefore the public fears this “Big Brother” dystopia where nothing is free from the government’s eye. Frankly speaking, people think too highly of how important their ‘private’ information really is; if the government was to make a highly advanced machine to bypass encryption, they would not use it to read my personal emails or my utterly trivial text messages, instead they would much rather use it to track down malicious plans sent between terrorists via highly encrypted online messages. The key point is to realize that eventually the end goal of surveillance and security measures are for our own good and certainly not primarily for hijacking for information. The numerous instances where lives have been saved solely because of surveillance vouch for this statement.

The Fight for Freedom and Privacy

During a heated debate in chapter 11 of Little Brother, the main character, Marcus Yallow, felt the need to read something to put his point across. "'It's short. "Governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, that whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles, and organizing its power in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness."'" Of course this passage is from the Declaration of Independence, and I believe Marcus uses it in this debate to defend not only the hippies or Yippies in question, but the group of people proclaiming "TAKE IT BACK!," at the concert.

From Marcus' use of this passage multiple times more in the book, and other grandiose speeches about fighting for rights, one can take that he want a true freedom. His infatuation with freedom leaves him as the most politically charged characters in the book. He is the main reason that as we read this today, we can notice the almost prophetic political statement of today's government watch on web usage. The situation may not be extreme as in mentioned in the book, but it gives a look into what could be a worse case scenario: a complete misuse of governmental power that leads to a major part of government being cast out of an entire state.

The passage from the Declaration of Independence is from times of distress of early America. There needed to be a change in the way people were treated as citizens. We can only hope that now, as current day Americans, that we can protect ourselves and our privacy as we see fit, so that we will not need a drastic change.

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