The History and Mathematics of Codes and Code Breaking

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Arguments Favouring Privacy

The debate between privacy and surveillance has been thoroughly explored over the course of this semester. I would like to point out some points I believe haven't received due importance. In Citizenfour, it was revealed that the US government withheld information regarding the several programs which involved spying on its people, actively invading their privacy. This blatant disregard shows that the NSA doesn't view the right to privacy as the paramount and essential right it is. By giving them the right to use electronic surveillance, we reinforce this wrong belief and the abuses to the people's privacy will only intensify.

Secondly, I believe that the phrase "in the interest of national security " is extremely ambiguous and while it seems fairly obvious what counts as national security, it can be easily misused since it will be used to justify hypothetical crimes. Also, if the primary reason for electronic surveillance is national security, it won't be very effective since most situations involving national security are by foreign parties who would be aware of the locations with which the US has surveilling authority.

Lastly, it is important to consider the role played by privacy in our lives. Since privacy is primarily a natural right, it is hard to build legislation around it. In such cases, it is important to not give due importance to how it feels to lose privacy. People often argue that privacy is not as important as safety because they tend to poorly estimate the immense role played by their private space in their day to day life.



A Higher Moral Purpose

The Chancellor's Lecture series featured guest General Michael V. Hayden, the former NSA and CIA director interviewed by Chancellor Zeppos and Professor Jon Meacham. A topic General Hayden addressed was the morality and ethicality of his past work. He acknowledged “We (intelligence agencies) operate in a grey space...It (the work of the CIA and NSA) only has a moral justification because it is attached to a higher moral purpose. If you believe a higher moral does not exist, it undercuts your job.” He said for those employees of intelligence agencies who question the ethics of their work, they should ask question such as “ Am I still part of the good thing? Does this matter? Does what I do make a difference?

My interpretation of his words were: it is acceptable to invade people’s privacy if it reaps a greater benefit for the people. This is a similar stance to the one I took in my first paper: protection of life justifies the means. However, after hearing his words, I realized the analysis of the existence of a higher moral purpose is very subjective. For example, person A may believe invading the privacy of 20 people to capture one criminal may be morally acceptable. However, person B may value privacy more and believes the benefit is worth the cost if only ten people's privacy are invaded. This lead me to wonder, how do you define a higher moral purpose if morals differ from person to person? What self-regulating policies are in place for central intelligence agencies to ensure every single action which invades the privacy of a citizen or foreigner is serving a higher moral purpose? 

"The Assault on Intelligence"

General Michael Hayden, the former NSA and CIA director for the United States, was interviewed by Professor Jon Meacham and Chancellor Nicholas Zeppos. Questions regarding national security and the current direction of the U.S. were proposed to Gen. Hayden.

To kick off the interview, Meacham proposed the question, "Does political partisanship and national security have a relationship?" This is when I realized that the debate was entirely a critique of Donald Trump's presidency. I was hoping to gain more insight into some actual non-biased perceptions of national security and their current relationship with the public. Nonetheless, I did find his answer to this question to be interesting. Gen. Hayden likes to classify political figures into groups such as the Hamiltons, Jacksonians, Wilsonians, or Jeffersonians. This allows him to align current political figures with a person that best represents them from history. For instance, according to him, Trump is a Jacksonian; he is not fully for isolation, but most of Trump's policy reflects separation from other nations. Later, he also states that Trump is trying to execute industrial policy in a post-industrial era. He contrasts Trump's Jacksonian characteristics with Obama's Jeffersonian views of nation-building. Whether his portrayal of these two figures is accurate or not, I do like the concept of pairing iconic historical figures with those of the present. It allows me to create a frame of reference for current politics and connect them to the past and see how they worked then and can be translated to the present.

Another interesting point Gen. Hayden made was that the three most important aspects that make the United States what it is are: immigration, trade, and alliances. He then states that since Donald Trump has taken office each one of these areas has seen a sharp decline and citizens will eventually see the effects of their decline. I do not claim to be a master of foreign or domestic policy. I do not even claim to be extremely knowledgeable in the subject. However, after doing some base-level research, such as viewing graphs and reading some statistics, I could not find any solid grounds to which this claim could be absolutely true. Trade, for instance, had a slight increase in the trade deficit. However, in the grand scheme of things, it was really not anything critical based on current and past trends. Also, with the current state of employment in the United States, I believe that this increase makes sense. This was very rushed research though, and to make a more sound counter, I would need to do far more research.

I am sure General Hayden is able to provide wonderful insight into the surveillance versus privacy debate, however, this interview missed that mark. While it may have been his intention to focus only on President Trump, I feel like there was much more to be said on the topic of "The Assault on Intelligence."

A Dissection of the Round Table with the General and the Chancellor

I thought that this lecture was very interesting, although it didn't really focus on what I thought it was going to focus on. Instead of talking about the debate between surveillance and privacy, they mainly focused on political issues as well as the art of on the ground surveillance. The general was the former director of the CIA, and he talked a lot about how the new presidency has shaped intelligence gathering. I thought he made an interesting point when he categorized the presidents by "archetypes," and showed that most presidents fit into one of a few categories. He characterized President Trump as a "Jacksonian" and President Obama as "Jeffersonian." By this, he meant that Trump was a populist that was holding America back from the inevitable. He compared Trump to William Jennings Bryan who ran in an election where he pushed that the US currency should be based on silver and not gold and how the US should be more agrarian and less industrialized. Now, he said he believes that industry as we know it is changing and that the US needs to adapt to these changes.  He said that industry that Trump is only delaying this process. It was also interesting how the General thought that Trump was going to change intelligence gathering. He said that as of right now, the US relies on a lot of liaisons for intel gathering and that in the future, due to the America first policy, it may be necessary to have more autonomy when it comes to on the ground surveillance. Although this debate didn't focus on the idea of privacy vs. surveillance, the General did talk about the work that the CIA does on the ground and how the President and the government, in general, can influence the way that this has to be carried out. Although this lecture was not what I was expecting and didn't really relate to our class that much, it was still very interesting.

Newseum Privacy vs Security Debate

I thought that this photo was very interesting since it captured a lot of the same thoughts that was as a class had after reading Big Brother. It also reminded me a lot of those word maps/clouds that show the frequency of words in a given text. I saw the word privacy pop up a lot, but I didn't see so much about Security. Another very interesting thing on the board that was kind of hard to read was the Benjamin Franklin quote. He said that "those who give up essential liberty for a little bit of security deserve neither security nor Liberty." I thought that this was a very powerful quote that relates to the topic, and I also think that Cory Doctorow would very much agree with it. I think that the governmental agencies that collect data get a bad reputation to a certain extent. I think that it is very unlikely that I have an FBI agent devoted to monitoring my life. What is more likely is that my data is being used to create a large sample of data which may be helpful to them. I forget the name of the trick, and I can't find it online, but I know that in accounting if the number of 1's that start the numbers in the books is off by a few standard deviations, then it is likely that someone has cooked the books. Terrorism may be much more difficult, but there may be situations like these where it is useful to have metadata.

Cryptography by the People for the People

The passage that stuck out to me the most from the novel was Marcus’ description of the use and benefits of cryptography from page 57. Even though it’s at the beginning of the book, this passage gets to the core of how cryptography works for us today. Cryptography is used by everyone because is as accessible to everyone. Thankfully, our government does not have a monopoly on cryptography; “the math behind crypto is good and solid, and you and me get access to the same crypto that banks and the National Security Agency use” (Westerfeld 57). Because it is so widely used, we can be sure of its effectiveness.
The quote continues to discuss how cryptography is useful to us today. Even if we do not have anything to hide, “there’s something really liberating about having some corner of your life that’s yours, that no one gets to see except you.” This reminds me of the article I read regarding the actions of the National Security Agency and invasion of civilian privacy due to bulk data collection. The fact that personal information as well as government intelligence is encrypted using the same means shows that the government has access to all of our information as well. This is not a bad thing; access to this information can be useful in ensuring peace. The question still remains: when does government access of individual data cross the line from protection to trespassing?

Freedom of the Press Still Requires Bravery - Taking on the NSA

"How to save the Net: Break up the NSA." This is a bold statement for a bold article. Bruce Schneier, renowned cryptographer and writer, bravely authored this article for Wired as a part of the "Save the Net" series, "featuring bold solutions to the biggest problems facing the Internet today." Schneier proposes that the NSA should be separated into its three main components: government surveillance, citizen surveillance, and defense of U.S. infrastructure, and these three sectors placed into different departments. Especially the more we learn about the NSA's reaching power and what they can do, they seem like such an untouchable superpower. I really admire Schneier's audacity to suggest such a radical solution, and I think his ideas make sense. Considering the Snowden leaks, the NSA's international mission should be protected at a military level in the Department of Defense, domestic surveillance goes hand in hand with the mission of the Justice Department, and, Schneier argues, the defense of American infrastructure should be by a new and open organization. I think what we find so intimidating about the NSA is that if they have the power to hack into a foreign government, what would stop them from looking into my personal phone or computer? But we don't seem to have a problem with the military cybersecurity having a similar power. It would be interesting to continue to explore the possible consequences of having a governmental agency that people trust devoted to protecting American citizens online, while the Departments of Defense and Justice combine forces with current NSA programs to secretly do what they need to do to protect us. And ironically, the NSA will most likely see and read this article that was published online, but that's what the freedom of press is all about!

9/11 Changed Everything

At the time Singh wrote the novel, there was no blatant reason for the government to use surveillance for the interest of national security. Then September 11, 2001 happened. This day completely changed the interests of both the American citizens and the government. After this terrorist attack, people were willing to give up their privacy in order to achieve more security. I am not saying that the government should have complete control over all communications all the time. What I am saying is that the government should have substantial surveillance over communications in order to prevent other significant threats to the citizens of the United States.

In times of fear, people are willing to give up some of their privacy in order to feel safer. The thing is, cryptography should not disappear. Cryptography will only keep improving, and there is little to nothing that the government can do to slow it down. What the government, mainly the NSA, can do is keep its cryptanalysis above and better than the cryptography present at the time. Then the government can use its cryptanalysis in order to analyze and read encrypted messages. The government used wiretapping in the 1920s, but its new weapon is code breaking. Of course, citizens will always want their information to be private, but with the new information age, the government can use data mining and break through encryptions in order to evaluate certain suspects without any normal computer user ever noticing. The government can give people the illusion of privacy while also providing them with the reality of security.

It’s not so much whether the government can have wide latitude but what it can do with its wide latitude. For all we as normal citizens of the nation know, the government can read any and all of our messages. The government has the technology to break into almost any kind of encryption with its super computers, so as long as the government stays within its boundaries of security and does not blatantly invade its citizens’ privacy, it can continue to successfully use its array of electronic surveillance.

Photo Credit: "tower1-2"  by Damlan Korman via flickr CC.

Photo Credit: "tower1-2" by Damlan Korman via flickr CC.


Every Security Measure Has a Weakness

One of the things which stood out to me throughout the book Little Brother was how it was so easy for even everyday people to foil the security measures put in place by the Department of Homeland Security. One of my personal favorites was the "arphid cloners" which could replace all of the electronic information on things such as your credit cards and identification and replace that with those of someone else. A particular passage showcasing this was when Marcus' father came home after being pulled over and questioned twice. This occurred because his father had been all over town recently to many various places, or so the DHS thought from their surveillance data. His father really had done nothing wrong, but various people who had been "given" his identity were making it look like he had very odd travel patterns. This marked a turning point in the novel as Marcus' father finally realized that there were some potential downsides to all of this surveillance the DHS was performing.

This concept of messing with security goes far beyond this one specific type of exploit, and goes further than the book as well. Every method of surveillance must have some weakness, whether that be an ability to avoid it or to attack it with so much information it cannot sort through it all properly. That raises the question of how useful every surveillance implement of the government is in the real world. It is possible that any day a random group of people could come up with a method to completely mess with some form of NSA surveillance. However as seen in the book, it is us as citizens who are the ones that are punished when there are flaws in surveillance systems. Thus we must ask ourselves if we are truly comfortable continuing to give up some of our privacy to groups such as the NSA and if that our relinquishing some of our right to privacy is actually helping in any way at all.


The National Security Agency has one main priority, the protection analysis of communications, both domestic and foreign , that pose a threat to the United states of America. The NSA would be unable to do their job if they weren't able to tap into communications that
the NSA developed the Data Encryption Standard (DES) weak enough to be broken by them using means that were well wicould lead to a legitimate threat to the US. In order to do their job most effectively and not waste manpower developing new ways to break codes,within their grasp. In deliberately weakening the DES, the NSA left businesses and personal messages with a standard that wasn't as strong as it could possibly though it was strong enough to keep their secrets relatively private. The senders of the messages that used the DES were generally angry that they couldn't have more secure encryption that had been created already, but the NSA was justified in keeping the security of the DES at a lower level the possible. In doing this, the NSA made it more difficult more threats against the US to develop within the US, which is the biggest threat to the security. While foreign attacks on the US are a more likely possibility, it is the home grown attacks that prove the most dangerous because security within the US is relatively weak in comparison to the security of getting into the US. Home grown attacks also more difficult to detect because there are a larger number of people that could be in on a plot and the members of a plot might be more diverse and harder to track. The solution to home grown attacks would be to either make it easier to identify attackers or make attackers jobs more difficult by increasing security; increasing security would first of all be a logistical nightmare because of the size of the US and secondly it would also cause mass protests amongst the US population who already despise the relatively simple security measures of airport security. Because of that, the NSA had to go with solution b and make it easier to identify attackers by making their communications open to the NSA if they ever become suspicious, while allowing the NSA to focus more time on investigating foreign communications.

Image: "Elderly Armenian Woman Guards Home" by United Nations Photos, Flickr(CC)

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