The History and Mathematics of Codes and Code Breaking

Tag: National Security

The Essence of the Security vs. Privacy Debate

When we talk about the battle between security and privacy, most of the discussion from both sides has to do with one of two topics: the effectiveness of electronic mass surveillance in deterring and stopping crime, or the effect that surveillance has on individual freedoms e.g. freedom of speech/expression. These are the most important questions in the debate, since we all agree that both individual freedom and safety are important, but the debate surrounds the way we prioritize those values and the effects that we perceive surveillance having on them. As a debater on either side of the topic, it is often tempting (and quite easy) to exaggerate the importance of either privacy or security, for example by claiming that by letting the government monitor our phone calls, we are condemning ourselves to an Orwellian future. Obviously, it is possible to live in a free and healthy democratic society where the government has access to its citizens phone calls. So instead of making that extreme claim, it might be more appropriate to simply note that we need to be deliberate and thoughtful about what freedoms we give up, and a similar approach applies to the safety side of the debate.

In addition to these value-driven issues, there is an important practical side to the debate that goes along with the above idea to be judicious in how we relinquish our freedoms, even when the end result is justified. It is important to keep in mind that any powers we grant to the government now are effectively permanent; they set a precedent for future regimes to do the same. So if we are going to give up a freedom in today’s society, we should also be willing to give that up in a hypothetical society where our ruler is the kind of tyrant we fear the most. Obviously, our constitution is designed specifically to prevent such a government from coming to power, but recognizing the longstanding effects of our choices today is vital since we can’t afford to get the answers to these questions wrong.

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.

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.

Has the United States discovered signs of a terrorist attack by bin Laden before 9/11?

This is not the case. Many of the information disclosed after 9/11 show that the US intelligence agencies are aware of Osama bin Laden. It is only because the US intelligence agencies have complex systems, serious internal consumption, lack of unified command, cooperation and scheduling, etc. Take the possession of Osama bin Laden seriously. For example, the FBI agent John O’Neill was the person directly responsible for investigating Osama bin Laden before 9/11, but he eventually retired from the FBI and became a victim of a terrorist attack on September 11. It can be said that John O’Neill has an almost crazy obsession with investigating bin Laden. In order to investigate Osama bin Laden, John O’Neill needs a lot of intelligence support, but the Bureau of Investigation did not give enough support to O’Neill’s work. The FBI has always been ruthless for employees who have a distinct personality, ambitious and dare to challenge mainstream thinking.

John O’Neill can be said to be the closest person to Osama bin Laden before the 9/11, but he was ruined by the FBI and other intelligence agencies’ endless internal consumption. In 2004, the investigation report issued by the Independent Investigation Committee of the 9/11 Congress showed The CIA and the National Security Bureau have long mastered the information that John O’Neill needs, but refused to share it. This mechanism for refusing to share information among government agencies comes from the Federal Criminal Procedure Regulations, which prohibits the disclosure of any material related to criminal investigations. Later, this rule was restricted by the FBI to limit the investigators of this Council. Means: It is strictly forbidden for anyone to share information, even for agents in this Council. Like the Bureau of Investigation, the CIA has also turned this barrier between its own and the Bureau of Investigation into a system. The CIA believes that sharing intelligence may undermine “sensitive sources and means”. The National Security Agency directly limits the transmission of important information. Agents of other agencies can only see brief reports on intelligence, and cannot obtain the original monitoring records of the National Security Bureau.

From these details, we can see that the main part is that the United State didn’t make a very comprehensive protection.
Comprehensive protection

Paradox of the False Positive

In Little Brother by Cory Doctorow, the main character Marcus discusses the paradox of the false positive after the Department of Homeland Security had set up certain security measures in order to capture possible terrorists and keep people safe. But instead of keeping people safe, they instead instilled fear of simply walking around the town and then being searched. People were being flagged left and right, and were constantly having their privacy invaded. Marcus explains how if you try and find something that is very rare like “Super-AIDS”, the accuracy of the test will be 99% but it will also 99.99% inaccurate. Meaning that to find someone that actually has Super-AIDS, first 10,000 other healthy people will be inaccurately tested and identified as having Super-AIDS. When this is applied to terrorists, out of 2o million people, 200,000 people will be identified as terrorists but only ten people actually are. So to catch the ten terrorists, first 200,o00 people would have to be wrongly investigated.

This reminded me of our discussion of the use of data mining in order to prevent potential campus violence. At first I was all for it, sacrificing the privacy of a few to keep the safety of many. But after reading about the paradox of the false positive and how using a system like date mining in order to keep tabs on people could actually do more damage than good, I am now on the fence. School shooters are actually very rare, we perceive them to be a big threat because of the role of media in society and how they portray the world to be a big, scary, violent place. But to catch one actual school shooter, a multitude of innocent people will have to be interviewed and investigated, all while being treated as possible criminals when they actually aren’t.

Finding a Balance

The US government should be given some latitude to infringe on citizen’s privacy when it comes to national security. The reason I say some latitude is because this should only pertain to national security, not to daily breaking of laws.

Singh identified on page 293 that privacy for ordinary people has never entailed cryptography until recently. That is because exchanges between people have not been in a public space (the internet) until the internet was available to everyone. Singh also said on page 250 that the government weakened the encryption so that the average person cannot hack it and only they can. There has to be a sense of privacy for the citizens while maintaining security for the country.

The government should be able to computer based algorithms to intercept certain keywords on electronic media that may indicate a national threat. This process should be done by a computer with no human interaction, however, once a threat has been flagged it would allow someone to evaluate whether intervention is necessary. The government employees should not be allowed to individually eavesdrop on standard communications without a warrant, but if it is computer automated it should be allowed. If the infraction is anything that is not a national security issue, it should be ignored, no matter how severe the law being broken. This discrepancy should keep a balance between security and privacy.

At the end of the day we all have to trust our government; As long as the government is out to protect our national security and not to prosecute the citizenry, the balance will work.

Photo Credit: "afghanistan" by The U.S. Army via Flickr CC

Photo Credit: “afghanistan” by The U.S. Army via Flickr CC

Safer From Government With Privacy

In the newer technological age, cryptography is becoming more and more relevant in everyday life. Unfortunately, there is a down side to this increase in technology and encryption. Encryption helps to protect the interests and communications of criminals and terrorism. The goal is to allow the public to enjoy these cryptographic advances with out letting criminals take advantage of them. Unfortunately, this is very difficult and therefore, some people think that the US government should be given wide latitude to use electronic surveillance in the interests of national security, even if this sacrifices some privacy. In reality, the national government will overstep its bounds and take advantage of its surveillance if it has the opportunity.

Photo credit: 'Privacy' by Sean MacEntee. Flickr. Creative Commons.

Photo credit: ‘Privacy’ by Sean MacEntee. Flickr. Creative Commons.

Singh puts forth the example of wiretapping and the negative consequences of it in the 1960’s. Martin Luther King Jr. was wiretapped and recorded telling bawdy stories. These stories were then played in front of President Johnson and organizations that were debating supporting him. Other stories included President Kennedy wiretapping senators with the concern that they were being bribed. Although it was later determined that the senators were not being bribed, Kennedy was provided with valuable political information to win the bill. Not only does this prove that recording private conversations, whether its over the phone or via the internet, is unethical, it also shows that there is no moral way to trust a government with this power.

Sufficiently Safe

Although it is fair to say that businesses were forced to rely on security that was less than optimal, the security they were using was more than sufficient. The Data Encryption Standard (DES) has a maximum amount of keys of around 100,000,000,000,000,000. This is referred to as 56 bits because when it is written in binary, it consists of 56 digits. Although there is a cap to the amount of keys that can be used, the number is large enough that no civilianwould have a computer powerful enough to determine which key was used. The NSA, which has the most powerful computing abilities in the world, is able to determine which key is used.

I believe that the NSA is justified in doing this because I believe that the NSA has the country’s interests in mind. The DESis secure enough to prevent anyone with malicious intentions from deciphering a message; therefore it is affective. The NSA should have the ability to decipher something if it is a matter of national security.

It is comforting to know that in the most dire circumstances, high ranked officials in our nation’s government, who vow to protect all of us, have the ability and access to great resources to do whatever it takes to do so.

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