The History and Mathematics of Codes and Code Breaking

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Why are People Still Trying to Solve the Beale Ciphers?

The first, most obvious answer to this question is that people are still attempt the Beale ciphers for the possible monetary gain. 20 million dollars is a lot of money, and solving the ciphers would be a relatively low effort way of acquiring all that money and getting rich. When I say relatively low effort, I mean that it doesn’t require years of schooling, starting a business, or somehow becoming wealthy in the way the average millionaire does. In a sense, solving the Beale ciphers is like winning the lottery, except that it actually requires skill.

The Beale ciphers appeal to people because they believe that they don’t have to do too much to solve it, and that if they somehow did, the benefits would be worth it. I think that as people continue to try the ciphers and rule out certain ideas, it makes newcomers confident that they’ll be able to figure out a new possibility. Hypothetically, if everyone on the planet were able to try a method to solve this multiple times a day, It would slowly be narrowed down until somebody figured it out. This could take many years, but it would still be solved eventually. This group effort is a possibility for why people still want to try it. In addition, someone could just use the second letter for clues, and find the treasure without actually solving the rest of the cipher, which takes out the intellectual effort and really makes it like winning the lottery. All they would have to do is dig up a whole bunch of holes 4 miles from Buford, and eventually, they may find it.

The last reason why it might still be appealing is that its just fun to try. A lot of people love solving puzzles and stuff like that, and this isn’t all that different fro Harajuku Madness from Little Brother. It’s the same kind of thing that draws people to things like Cicada and Geocaching and other things like that. Also, who wouldn’t want to be the person known for solving a 200 year old cipher and getting 20 million dollars?

Security vs. Privacy Debate Map

For your reference, here’s a photo of the security vs. privacy debate map we constructed in class on Monday. Click on the image for a better view.

Can Technology Truly Give a Feeling of Privacy?

In Little Brother by Cory Doctorow, the passage that caught my attention was in Chapter 5 when Marcus talked about how technology made him feel. He said that technology made him feel like he had control, and that technology works for, serves and protects him when it is used the right way. He says the when technology is used right, it could give “power and a sense of privacy”.

I believe that technology has so many good attributes, but with the good there is bad. Even if technology was used in a good way, that does not mean that everyone else would not misuse it. Technology can give a feeling of privacy and protection, but that can be easily violated by hackers or people that mean to do harm. Many people think that they are protected by their technology, and by thinking this they let their guard down. Technology does not work for a single person, it works for anyone who has access to it. While people may think that they are safe and whatever they put online is protected, that is not always the case.

In the beginning of the novel, Marcus abuses his power over technology. He used technology to discover everything there was to know about his vice principal including his social security number, birthday, hometown, and even his mother’s maiden name. Marcus did not use technology in the right way. Even though he wants to use technology for the better, he succumbed to the things he could discover and do with the power of technology. In my opinion, Marcus is very hypocritical. Marcus violated the privacy of his vice principal even though he says that he loves technology because of the feeling of privacy that it gives.


The Nature of Cryptography

In Cory Doctorow’s novel “Little Brother”, the passage which resonated with me the most was the one on page 57 where Marcus had just given up his phone password to Carrie Johnstone. In this passage, he begins to explain the essence of cryptography and the reason why it stood out the most was that in that one short passage, he went over almost everything that we have done in historical aspect of our cryptography class.

Firstly, he touches upon the fact that cryptography  used by the common man is just as strong as the one used by the National Security Agency. This is representative of the progress we’ve made as compared to the cryptography used by Mary Queen of Scots, a topic we discussed in detail as the first chapter of Simon Singh’s “The Code Book”. In that chapter, we see how niche cryptography was and more so cryptanalysis whereas now it is a ubiquitous phenomenon, very often taken for granted.

Secondly, Marcus talks about how his privacy was in question, again something we have deliberated on as we weighed out the balance between public safety and privacy. Reading between the lines, it is also seen that when it comes to cryptography, having enough resources can always crack the code, regardless of the ethics of the means you use to do so. Just like in the San Bernardino’s case, the FBI found a way to get past the encryption, the DHS were able to pressure Marcus into giving up his own privacy, which begs the question that in an absolute sense, can anything ever be kept completely secret?

Finally, Marcus asserts that the best means of measuring the efficacy of an encryption is its prevalence. This argument runs parallel to the ideas of Joseph Bramah’s challenge as explained in “Perfect Security-99 Percent Invisible” where he  explains the mechanism behind it and still exacts the public to try and open it. The fact that his lock was not picked for a substantial period of time reinforces the level of security it provided to its user.

Personal privacy need to be respected.

      The scene that hit me the most in the book The Little Brothers is what Winston faced and experienced in the jail and how he reacted to them. Although I heard a lot of rumors about how it works in jail system, it still surprised me of what they can do to a high school student who is probably not an adult yet. All the system, no matter the right of personal privacy or right to have an attorney, even the right to protect the juveniles failed to function  in front of the undecided charge on the teenager. Even worse they treated him badly both physically and psychologically just because of a crime that he was never ever involved in.  “She didn’t want me to just unlock the phone. She wanted me to submit to her. To put her in charge of me. To give up every secret, all my privacy.” The sense of despair in the tone is filling all between the words.

       I used to hold the firmly belief that security is much more important than personal privacy. That I can sacrifice my little privacy for the sake of everyone in the society. And that’s probably what I’m gonna do if I’m in Winston’s situation. But seeing how Winston react to military threats. I began to think that my view toward this question is probably too superficial. I only considered my case whose personal privacy doesn’t mean too much for himself. For many other people it might means quite a lot. In this case for Winston it’s not something too much to talk about. “It’s his past doing’s coming back to him.” Instead, for lots of people, no matter the Business man having commercial secrets or even a cook with a secret recipe that made them successful, everyone need to keep something from the others to protect themselves and their results and personal life.It’s unfair for them to keep us their hardworking and daily life for a little safety which is not that approachable. Sometimes it’s even only someone’s trick to be in charge. It felt really embarrassing to let anyone know what you thinking about and know whatever anything happening to you. Just as the metaphor used in the passage of what it’s like to squat on the toilet in the centre of the Times Square. The book changed my view toward this question. Sometimes the sacrifice of privacy to trade safety is not used in a good way, but to monitor and control people instead. People’s personal privacy needs to be respected.

School or Prison – We are naked under monitoring

The most impressive passage for me is chapter 6. The author uses the dialogue between the Turk and Marcus to indicate the situation that citizens are under monitoring, through ways such as tracking their expense record. Marcus’s thinking afterward during school strengthen this point.

“You think it’s no big deal maybe? What is the problem with the government knowing when you buy coffee? Because it’s one way they know where you are, where you been.”

These words of the Turk straightly point out the security system of people in this country. The government can track an individual with their card record, when and where this person has purchased what can provide enough information to know his trend. This is not the only way, there are thousands of cameras in every block. As long as an individual show up in one of these cameras, the moving direction will be grasped and it is easy to use the series of cameras to track this person.

It goes without saying that the security system is useful to find out where a criminal suspect is. In the real world, this is an efficient way for the police to arrest suspects. However, the government can use the system not only find suspects but also monitor innocent citizens. The fact is that they do monitor what’s happening in every corner of the country, even though there is nothing related to criminal issues.

After the conversation with the Turk, Marcus realized his naked situation during school. He intended to have a discussion about the privacy problem in the class but failed by the teacher. The scariest thing is that people are numb and be accustomed to their situation of being monitored, which means they know their privacy is violated but they do not care about this problem and ignore it.

In my opinion, it is appropriate to set the security system to protect the safety of citizens with a strict supervision. The government can request to see the expense record in bank or record in cameras only if there is enough evidence indicates that an individual is related to criminal issues. The supervise will be hard because the definition of a criminal suspect is blurry and the government is actually in charge of the whole system. I believe in the future we can find out an appropriate way to protect people’s security without violated the whole citizens’ privacy.

The Paradox of the False Positive

One passage from Little Brother that particularly caught my attention was the part from chapter 8 in which Marcus discusses the paradox of the false positive.  It begins with Marcus explaining his plan to fight back against the Department of Homeland Security’s ramped-up surveillance and “safety protocols” that he believes to be violating the personal privacy of the citizens of San Francisco.  He talks about a critical flaw in the DHS terrorist detection system, which is that the accuracy of the terrorism tests isn’t nearly good enough to effectively identify actual terrorists without incorrectly accusing hundreds or even thousands of innocent people in the process.  Due to the extreme rarity of true terrorists, the tests meant to increase safety end up generating far too many false positives that result in people feeling even less safe.  As Marcus says, it’s like trying to point out an individual atom with the tip of a pencil.

This passage made me reconsider just how efficient automatic detection algorithms really are.  It’s logical to believe that a 99% accurate test is reliable, but when there is a very small amount of what you’re looking for in a very large population, a 1% error can cause major problems.  Thinking back to the article that discussed universities’ use of data-mining to identify possible school shooters or other at-risk individuals, it’s clear that the paradox of the false positive could cause similar issues in real-world situations.  The number of would-be school shooters is so small compared to the total student population that it would be extremely difficult for any tests to accurately identify them.  Overall, Little Brother‘s discussion of the paradox of the false positive demonstrates the importance of having reliable identification tests with sufficient accuracy to take on the rarity of what they are meant to find.  Otherwise, you might just end up working against yourself.

How do Experiences Change Our Views on Data-Mining?

One thing I noticed both in this book and in real life is how quickly people’s opinions can change on a subject after dealing with certain experiences. In the case of this novel, the subject is data-mining and surveillance. Throughout the course of the book, we see many different stances on privacy rights, but we also see many people change their ideas after going through life-changing experiences.

One of the primary examples of this is Marcus’s dad Drew, who we see going back and forth between sides multiple times. On page 109, we see Drew come back home, after Marcus was questioned by the police. To Marcus and his mom, this questioning was unjust and a waste of time. According to them, it made no sense to detain every single person in the city who showed some sort of odd travel behavior. But when Drew heard about it, he believed that they were just doing their jobs, and if anything, all of this tracking and surveillance was helping to keep them safe. This was a complete turnaround from page 78, immediately after Marcus returned from DHS custody. His dad was absolutely livid, but at the time, he hadn’t had a chance to learn what had happened. Later in the book, Drew changes his mind again, after learning what truly happened to Marcus after the bridge bombing. He went from supporting all the extra surveillance, to hating it in an instant. This shows that just having one extreme experience can completely change one’s views on a lot of subjects.

Not only did this happen in the book, but I have also experienced this in our class. When we originally answered the question about security and privacy, I believed that having privacy was more important than having more security. Once we read the article about the college campus and data-mining, my opinion changed to having more security. After reading little brother though, my opinion has changed back to more privacy. It’s possible that these examples are skewing my opinions because of how extreme they are, but I’m still realizing how easy it was for them to change my mind. From now on, I plan on being more aware of this as I continue to learn more about how surveillance can be used on us.

Little Brother Data Mining Exaggeration?

Not long after Marcus is released, he was followed by two police officers and was arrested for taking unusual trips at unusual times using the BART.  Because Marcus’s fast pass was able to collect data on where and when he took trips, a computer algorithm incorrectly marked him down as a possible criminal. When he was brought home in handcuffs his parents talked the police out of incarcerating him. Following these events, Marcus and his father argued on the role of data mining algorithms. Marcus believed that the police are ineffective to deal with the ‘haystack’ of data that data mining algorithms sifted through. On the other hand, his father believed that it was beneficial to have data samples of everyone so that abnormal patterns could be detected and questioned.

Taking a stance on data mining and its accompanying algorithms is not easy. Depending on the context, my view would relate closer to Marcus’s side or his father’s. One example that has been brought up in our class was when our credit card companies freeze our accounts. On an international trip, a few expense will trigger the computer algorithm to freeze the account. These algorithms are in place to compare your expenditures with your previous patterns of spending. This system is in place to protect the user from fraud, and it is beneficial because it causes very little inconvenience to the user. Another example of data mining is how companies use their customers’ data to develop custom marketing strategies. Companies want to be successful and to do this, they wish to brand their product to any type of consumer. This might be seen as a benefit to companies but it does infringe on the public’s privacy. The controversial aspect is how specific companies choose to survey people, Google for example is though to have used ambient sound from their users to generate ads.

There are not many inconveniences of data mining, the important matter is the level of privacy that the data contains. Sensitive data is not usually used in these data mining algorithms and the data mining framed in the book is a exaggeration of what could possibly happen if surveillance extends too far. The systems we have in place now and are currently being developed are assets rather than obstacles.

My Privacy Wants, Your Privacy Wants

A passage that caught my attention while reading Little Brother by Cory Doctorow was one in which the protagonist, Marcus, discusses why people want privacy. On page 57, Marcus asks the reader to consider the act of defecating. There is nothing shameful, abnormal or criminal about using the washroom so why would having to evacuate solid waste “in a glass room perched in the middle of Times Square” make us uncomfortable? Marcus argues “It’s not about doing something shameful. It’s about doing something private. It’s about your life belonging to you.” This quote attracted my attention because it made me reconsider my stance on the privacy vs. security debate. In my previous blog post addressing the article, “Mining Student Data Could Save Lives”, I had wholeheartedly agreed with Michael Morris’ attempt to persuade colleges to data mine in order to prevent mass shootings however, Doctorow’s quote prompted me to further consider with the flip side.

Currently, there are no security cameras in the washrooms on Vanderbilt’s campus. I hypothesize if camera were installed in washrooms, there would be an uproar. Like Doctorow points out, there is nothing shameful about using the washroom but I can imagine many people might feel dehumanized if they were being surveilled while showering, brushing their teeth or defecating. Why would I want toilet stalls? I’m not sure, I just want my privacy. It might be hard to justify using words why those actions required privacy yet there is an almost unanimous agreement one should have privacy when defecating, hence the existence of toilet stalls. Having some degree of privacy, is liberating. This caused me to reevaluate the value of my privacy. How much privacy I want will not perfectly align how much privacy my peers want. I would still want to respect the privacy wants of others.

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