The History and Mathematics of Codes and Code Breaking

Tag: military crypto

Britain's Fallacy

The conclusion of World War I brought a sense of elation and confidence for Allies, as they brought upon the defeat of the Central Powers. Utterly convinced that the reparations burdened upon Germany would be sufficient from ever causing such blatant militarism again, the Allies embraced peace. A common phrase that was uttered to describe World War I was that it was the “war to end all wars.” The world was still reeling from the conflict but many truly believed that it was the end of large scale conflict. Publishing a full history, revealing the inner workings of the British military was an embodiment of that idea, the idealistic view that the world had indeed changed. In reality this was not the case and a blatant disregard for the rapidly militarizing Nazi Empire was one of the primary factors which led to the Second World War. The idealistic perspectives following World War 2, imagined cooperation among countries to create a peaceful era. The League of Nations is further evidence to that idea. Though idealistic, one could argue that the released knowledge spurned on the Enigma machine which led to Alan Turing’s machine which eventually became the modern computer. Additionally, it could be argued that with Hitler so paranoid of repeating the mistakes of his predecessors, a new code would have been created regardless. The release constitutes a sharp break from common cryptography practices, as the ability to break a code becomes infinitely more powerful if that ability is secret. The hope was that ciphers would never be needed again. 

Necessity and Usability

The primary factor favouring the advancement of military cryptography is when a country realizes their war efforts have been compromised due to the lack of strong encryption. For example, Arthur Scherbius’ Enigma machine was unpopular with the German military prior to the publishing of the histories of the First World War as written by Winston Churchill and the British Royal Navy. The Germans’ had yet to discover their war efforts were been manipulated by the British and saw no need to improve their current cryptography methods. Once the Germans were made aware of their cryptographic fiasco during World War I by the two British documents, they were forced to advanced their military cryptography. The Germans saw the need for the Enigma in their war efforts and thus began mass production. It is important to note that Scherbius first saw the need to replace the ineffective cryptographic methods used in World War I while the German government did not. One person realizing the inadequacy of a country’s cryptographic methods was not enough to advance military cryptography. For example, Alexander Koch, Arvid Damm and Edward Hebern all failed to find a market for their cryptographic advancements because the need for stronger encryption was not recognized by the masses. Although the art form itself was advanced, the advancement was lost in history if recognition by the masses was absent.

A second factor favouring military cryptographic advancements is usability. During the early phases of the first World War, Germany had advanced into French territory. However, the French destroyed their landlines as their armies retreated so Germans were forced to use radio communication. The French did not need to use radios so there were no messages for the Germans to intercept and decrypt. Thus, the art of decryption was unusable to the Germans and they did not develop a military cryptanalytic bureau until two years after the start of the war.

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.

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