Cryptography

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Young, Dumb, But Not Scum

One of the recurring themes of Cory Doctorow's Little Brother is the trade-off between privacy and security. In the wake of a devastating terror attack, the city of San Francisco is effectively transformed into a police state, with the each person being monitored day in and day out. Marcus, the protagonist, and his fellow youth ultimately grow disillusioned with this kind of treatment, going as far as to proclaim not to trust anyone over 25 or 30, as the older generation seems to condone and even accept this new way of life.

This dynamic of young versus old paralleling the dynamic of privacy versus security is indicative of another kind of societal dynamic: idealism versus pragmatism. For Marcus, Jolu, and Ange, the right to privacy is more than merely hiding information: it's peace of mind, the confidence that deeply personal isn't subject to scrutiny by a third party, that one's suspect yet benign information is hidden from prying eyes. However, the government views the safety blanket of privacy in a different light: as a cloak to mask malicious and malevolent intent. For the government, the idea of protecting the citizenry demands the intrusion of privacy, and those in power subscribe to such an ideology.

While I do believe the lengths to which the government in Little Brother prove to be quite extreme, for the government to facilitate the protection of the people, a degree of invasion of privacy is to be expected. In that sense, the government of Little Brother, with its all seeing eye, is caught in a double-bind. One one hand, as a government, the burden of protecting the citizenry falls on its shoulders. Likewise, in pursuit of these goals, it must also ensure that justice is delivered appropriately, minimizing false positives to the best of their ability. Under this framework, the government of Little Brother still proves indefensible in its blanket prosecutions, but displays a nuance of the debate often ignored. While those above 25 or 30 may seem to condone an severe violation of the right to privacy, many understand that such an action is the result of a government caught in a so-win situation, choosing the wisdom of pragmatism over the hope of idealism.

Getting Our Priorities Straight

Almost everyone agrees that safety and privacy are two things that people have the fundamental right to enjoy.  Rarely do we hear an argument deliberately stating that either of these concepts should be intentionally disregarded.  In a perfect world, everyone could feel protected from physical harm as well as from privacy invasion.  Unfortunately, however, we do not live in a perfect world.  We live in a society where priorities must be evaluated and sacrifices must be made in order to promote the greater good.

Today, we face a growing prevalence of terrorism and violent crime that poses a threat to national security.  It is important that our government is given freedom to use electronic surveillance because it would allow it to collect information that could prevent these horrible incidents from ever taking place.  If federal agencies such as the NSA or the FBI could monitor people's online behavior, they could identify red flags and potentially intervene before tragedy strikes.  Even if the chances are slim, it's still worth a try.

Some believe that the government would be overstepping its bounds with surveillance like this, saying it has no right to collect personal data.  However, if surveillance has a chance to save lives, one could argue that it is acceptable to use it at the expense of some degree of personal privacy.  As long as you aren't doing anything wrong, you have nothing to be afraid of.  The primary purpose of any government is to protect its citizens.  It has no interest in snooping around an ordinary person's data, and would not go out of its way to bother anyone who doesn't pose a threat.  Overall, it's important that we have a little bit more faith in the intentions of our government.  We are currently in the midst of an informational arms race.  The enemy is using every resource at their disposal to try to come out on top - shouldn't we do the same?

 

Essential Arugements in Security vs. Privacy Debate

As a notetaker, I hope to hear arguments by both sides that provide answers for the more philosophical questions behind the debate. I see both sides of the privacy vs. security debate, but I definitely lean towards privacy. However, since I come from a point-of-view that's on the fence for certain issues, hearing one of the sides provide a really solid answer for one of those heavy hitting points could tip the scale.

One such point for the surveillance side that I myself would love to have a counter for is in regards to the inherent nature of government. Above all, the United States government is supposed to ensure the well-being and prosperity of its citizens. Yet, how are they able to carry this out without having a wide latitude of electronic surveillance? Even the most seemingly normal people can go on to commit atrocious acts, so would it not be in the best interest of the people to be able to keep some watch over the citizens? I am not even sure that there is an exact answer for this because, at the end of the day, the answer comes down to personal belief on a person to person basis.

An argument made by security that I would like to see countered is the fact that those for security seemingly overvalue the threat of terrorism. In reality, terrorists are a rare occurrence, so why should many have to suffer for one?

Overall, I look forward to listening from the sidelines as the topic is debated. The side that can find really concrete answers to questions along these lines will be able to make the best argument in my opinion.

What would you give up to feel safer?

What would you give up to feel safer?

If it were possible, people should give up the existence of the United States. The US has been at war for 214 years out of a possible 235 years since its inception. (Donias, 2011). During this time, the US has been the cause of many atrocities abroad. For example, in more recent years, the wars in Afghanistan and Syria, which have caused the death of many innocent civilians. Effectively, by dissolving the US, we will decrease global terrorism immensely and thus, humanity as a whole will feel safer.

A map of nations when asked the question "Which country is the largest threat to world peace?".

While the Newseum poses the question in the context of terror, privacy, and security, framing it in this way implies that the US and its residents are unsafe and at risk of dying at any moment from an act of terror. This is false. In reality, the chances of dying due to a terrorist attack are 1 in 45, 808. (Gould, D. M., 2017). The question that should be asked is actually, why do US residents feel so unsafe?

The answer is rooted in the original question. The government has used the media to brainwash its citizens through sensationalized news, leading them to believe that the US is always at risk from an impending attack. As a result of this, the government can influence its citizens to “give up” their rights in order to feel safer. The government can then slowly take away its citizen's basic rights to things such as privacy and gun control, which will eventually culminate with their citizens being left with no freedom at all. As a result of this, the government will have ultimate power over their citizens, which was their goal from the start.

So, what people give up to feel safer? Nothing.

Newseum

 

References:

Gould, D. M. (2017, January 31). How likely are foreign terrorists to kill Americans? The odds may surprise you. Retrieved September 27, 2017, from http://www.businessinsider.com/death-risk-statistics-terrorism-disease-accidents-2017-1

Danios. (n.d.). America Has Been At War 93% of the Time – 222 Out of 239 Years – Since 1776. Retrieved September 27, 2017, from http://www.washingtonsblog.com/2015/02/america-war-93-time-222-239-years-since-1776.html

A map of nations when asked the question "Which country is the largest threat to world peace?", in 2013 [X-post from /r/europe] [1920x1080] • r/MapPorn. (n.d.). Retrieved September 27, 2017, from https://www.reddit.com/r/MapPorn/comments/5usnif/a_map_of_nations_when_asked_the_question_which/?st=IZDR16XQ&sh=9cbee2a5

What Are the Differences Between Giving Privacy to the Government and to Our Campus?

After the 9/11 attacks, counterterrorism became the FBI’s primary mission. But in order to catch terrorists and thus increase national security, the FBI expanded its intrusion into our personal lives. Therefore it again comes the argument over privacy versus security, which seems quite similar to the campus data-mining case we discussed before. Interestingly, while I refused to give up any privacy last time, I believe the government’s access to some of our privacy is justified as long as it will not compromise our rights of freedom and the pursuit of happiness.

Ensuring nation’s security is extremely hard, because the government has to beware all aspects on its lands that may have security loopholes. Only with the data-mining and digital surveillance, the technologies that can span the country to watch on people’s moves, the government is able to prevent bad things from happening, and take immediate action in case of terror attacks. The campus security, however, is relatively easier to be maintained. Since the campus is merely a small community, rather than infringing students’ privacy, the university can instead increase the number of its security guards, thereby achieving nearly the same safety purpose.

Additionally, giving our privacy to the government’s security departments is much safer than to non-governmental institutions. In other words, the FBI is more reliable than others because it is one of the US leading security agencies in which almost all its officers are selectively recruited and rigorously trained so that they are well capable of keeping our personal data safe after examining it. However, when it comes to non-governmental institutions, it is reasonable to be paranoid that our data may be leaked; criminals may easily hack into the database of a university, but few of them can invade the FBI’s security systems. The FBI can actually protect us from terror attacks with the control over some of our private data against criminals, and thus we should make a concession to exchange some privacy for the nation’s security.

Progression is Activism

Although at first I was a little miffed about the idea of reading an entire novel over break, but it was actually a pretty relaxing read and some points the author made were really thought provoking. Sometimes I felt he was trying to be too hip - I suppose this is a common occurrence in a lot of teen fiction - every time I read "total horn-dog" I was thinking, "what?" But that's neither here nor there. There were a number of quotes that I really thought about, like when Marcus was arguing for the absolute protection of the Bill of Rights, and the total non-professionalism some of the authority figures in the book seemed to exude, but Marcus also pointed out something very important. "I can't go underground for a year, ten years, my whole life, waiting for freedom to be handed to me. Freedom is something you have to take for yourself." Inspiring, isn't it?

Truly, nothing will be accomplished by passivity. The constant activism and solving problems is what propels movements forward - awareness will get something started, but there must be steps taken beyond that. Cryptography is similarly a constantly evolving subject, requiring analysis that is always considering different options and perspectives. It couldn't progress so efficiently if cryptanalysts were always waiting for other cryptanalysts to decipher notes themselves - and in many cases, that's exactly what they don't want to happen.

Ethical, Unethical, or Both?

I am of the opinion that there are two ways that the question can be looked at. Personal ethics, I think, are different than the ethics of a nation. This is something that must be taken into account when questioning the ethics of decisions surrounding national security; it most certainly must be taken into account when considering the Zimmerman telegram.

From a personal standpoint, this decision is unquestionably unethical. Letting America know the contents of the Zimmerman telegram would have saved American lives, and potentially shortened the length of the war. Although it could be argued that more lives might have been lost if Germany knew that the code had been broken, I vastly disagree. Creating a new and equally strong code for their messages would have taken Germany a long period of time, because creating codes that function and are very strong is not an entirely simple process. Even if Germany became aware that their code had been broken, with the advantage given to both America and Britain, the war may have been won before the new code was invented. It is completely unethical for someone to break a code with the intention of shortening the war, and then not use the broken code to save as many lives as possible.

At the other end of this issue is the standpoint of national ethicality.  It is my opinion that a nations ethics are typically focused first and foremost selfishly, on the survival of that specific nation. It is quite possible that Admiral Hall believed that telling the Americans about the contents of the Zimmerman telegram would jeopardize the very survival of his nation, in which case he simply obeyed his national ethics, which told him that survival came first. In following this duty to his country he also follows another part of national ethicality, that the homeland must come first.

With these two sides to keep in mind, it is impossible for me to conclude that one is more correct than the other. Personally, it is unethical. Nationally, it seems it may have been quite ethical. In the end, this is a murky issue. However, in the tumultuous and interconnected times we live in today, this will be an issue I think we will revisit very soon.

Ethically Relying on the Unknown

I believe that, just like beauty, ethics are in the eye of the beholder. Whether or not one finds a decision ethical arguably depends more on one’s own upbringing and personal experiences than the action itself. The wide variety of cultural responses to issues such as abortion, the death penalty, and civil liberties exemplifies the inconsistency between our perceptions of morality. Ethics often lack one right or wrong answer and instead simply show how actions can align, or not align, with one’s beliefs.

When Admiral William Hall decided not to tell President Woodrow Wilson about the immense progress of Britain cryptanalysts, he was making a decision for the future of his own country. Although the telegraph showed signs of American danger, Hall was instead thinking of the potential lives he would save by withholding the information. By letting the Germans know that their code had been broken, the British would be unable to prevent future, possibly greater attacks on both their allies and their own country.

Although both risky and difficult, Hall did what he believed was best in the long run. While he was uncertain that more attacks would be revealed through cryptanalyzing German telegraphs, he truly thought that saving the lives of those in future warfare was the right decision. Ethically, I agree with Hall. Although he withheld information that would have helped his allies, he was focused on doing what he believed would help the most people over time. Hall himself was not putting the Americans in danger; he simply did not act upon the information given. If he had shared Britain’s knowledge, he would have given away an advantage that could ultimately win them the war. While Hall’s decision was a difficult one, his intentions were ethical as he believed the withheld information would best help both countries in the end.

Protect our Privacy

In my opinion, the U.S. government should not be given a large ability to use electronic surveillance for national security. Surveillance might catch criminals, but it also catches a lot of innocent people in its path. Citizens have a right to their privacy, a right that the government should not intrude upon without good cause. Giving the government a wide latitude to use electronic surveillance seems to me like it would give them the opportunity to surveil people even if they weren’t suspicious, doubtlessly intruding on countless private messages that a completely innocent person is sending. Our government is by no means flawless; some of their actions in the past regarding surveillance have definitely fallen into a moral grey zone. For instance, the U.S. government used unjustified wiretaps on Martin Luther King Jr. for several years, gathering not only information that would help them in debates concerning civil rights but “bawdy stories” and “embarrassing details about King’s life” (Singh, p. 307). Clearly, they have used wiretapping unduly before; allowing them a breadth of access to electronic surveillance would undoubtedly result in them pressing their advantage too far in some cases.

Photo Credit: "Security" by Dave Bleasdale via Flickr CC

Photo Credit: "Security" by Dave Bleasdale via Flickr CC

 

In addition, citizen privacy during transactions is extremely important to the economy of the United States as well as the economy of the globe. Without secure encryption, messages sent using the internet and purchases on the web would be far less trustworthy. Furthermore, as purchases on the internet have increased, there is greater incentive for criminals to try to decode these purchases and reach credit card information (Singh, p.308). Imagine all of the purchases that occur over the internet in this day and age; it would be incredibly destructive if someone could break into the encryption scheme we use to protect them. Millions of people could lose their credit card information, and a break in to this effect would undoubtedly dissuade some people from purchasing much on the internet anymore. Allowing the U.S. government a larger reach in electronic security would surely mean that the encryption we were using for online transactions would have to go down; the U.S. government has been trying to decrease the private citizen’s level of encryption for years in order to allow easier access to the government to their information. They might try to switch us to the American Escrowed Encryption Standard, which would allow them a databank of all private keys, or even try to limit the length that a private key can be (Singh, p.310). Both would decrease the power of our encryption methods, hardly keeping us safe from criminals who might be searching for a way to steal credit card information. Overall, allowing great government power for electronic surveillance hardly seems like a good idea; not only would the security of our internet transactions decrease with a decrease in encryption, the government could invade our privacy much easier.

Losing our Voice

Voice

Photo Credit: looking4poetry via Compfight cc

The United State government should not be allowed to surveil its citizens and invade privacy in the interest of national security. The right to privacy was declared a basic human right. Taking that right away will weaken the voice of the citizens and allow the government more opportunity and more reason to increase surveillance in the future at the expense of other rights. This increased surveillance also increases the chance of an abuse of power.

If citizens allow their government to take away one right, then what is stopping them from taking away others on the basis that it will increase security? If a government knows it can get away with infringing upon the rights of its citizens, aware that the majority will not stand up and question them, it will be more inclined to abuse its power with the knowledge it is likely to suffer little repercussion if caught. There is evidence that the government has abused its power, especially when it comes to infringing upon the right to privacy. The government unjustly wiretapped telephone conversations of Martin Luther King Jr. and fed the information to Senator James Eastland, which he used in debates regarding a civil rights bill. Presidents such as Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon have been accused and proven guilty of unjust wiretapping (Singh, Ch. 7).

The U.S. government has shown its willingness to break the law and infringe upon the privacy of its citizens, allowing them to surveil the citizens for increased security. Allowing them to continue conveys that it is ok for them to do so. In the end, we will lose much more than just privacy. We lose our voice, our freedom and our rights.

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