The History and Mathematics of Codes and Code Breaking

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Experience Causes Little Change to Drew's Beliefs

There was a part in the book where soon after Drew, Marcus' dad, is upset about being pulled over for no reason and patted down, his anger eventually dissolved and he continued to argue with Marcus, supporting what Department of Homeland Security (DHS) was doing. I found this especially strange and interesting. You would think that after experiencing the invasion of privacy and violation of rights that Marcus had been trying to tell him about, he would be fully opposed to what DHS was doing to the citizens of San Francisco. However, if anything, it seemed have made him support DHS more. I believe that he reacted this way because he was trying to look on the bright side of things, as most people would when they are going through tough times or even when they are being oppressed. His train of thought seemed to have been "I made be seen as guilty everywhere I go, but if I know I'm innocent and I stay innocent, actual guilty people are being arrested through this process, so it is okay." Only a few people in the believe seemed to have demonstrated the same type of attitude, but usually after people experience what it feels like to be oppressed, their entire attitude and perspective on a specific idea or belief changes if it opposes the shared perspective of the oppressed population. When this particular scene happened in the book, I actually read over it several times to make sure what I thought was happening actually happened. Drew Yallow's opinion on DHS switched for only a short period of time before he adopted his initial beliefs again, and defended them even greater.

Strict or Loose Construction?

Marcus argues during class with both Charles and Mrs. Anderson about the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Though both sides in the book are represented by extreme views for the sensationalism of attempting to tell a good story, the actual debate is a valid case of differing opinions. The question of when to suspend the Bill of Rights remains contentious, however the government has made rulings in the past relating to the matter. Marcus states that the Bill of Rights is absolute, and should never be suspended. While this is a valid opinion, it does not reflect the views of the nation in “Little Brother”, nor does it reflect the views of our nation. The Supreme court has ruled that shouting “Fire” in a crowded theater, or hate speech, for example, are not protected under the first amendment, freedom of speech and expression. Though I would say that these examples are not necessarily suspending the Bill, the federal governments’ Patriot Act represents a suspension of the Bill in certain cases. The government is given wide latitude to seek out and prosecute terrorism based on a much lesser standard of truth than a court of law. Additionally, an important part of the debate is the right to privacy versus surveillance. Whether the right to privacy exists in the Bill of Rights is not debatable, there is no stated rule that creates it. The only arguments come from the 14th amendment, where Roe v. Wade was ruled based on the implied right to privacy. As part of the debate, Mrs. Anderson brings up how the constitution was made to change and adapt to the times, and that the founding fathers did not mean for it to remain immutable for years. Marcus argues the opposite, what is known as strict constructionism. Though I do not agree with how Mrs. Anderson wants to change the constitution, I would agree that it should not be interpreted literally, and that it should evolve with society. The very idea that the constitution has a built in amendments process shows that the founding fathers did not believe that they were the final say on the way this nation should be run.

Reimann Sum(feat. Technology)

Technology has quite literally transformed our lives. We live in an age of undeniable prosperity and freedom, where even our poorest live a better life than ancient kings. But in recent years the very technologies that we use for pleasure have been turned against us by governments and bad-faith actors. Of course we don't live in an era of absolute freedom; we agree to cede some of our rights for safety and security. For example, we as a society agree on the use of surveillance cameras as a means of deterrence and protection, but are we ready to make the leap to facial ID? We agree that police should use DNA testing to solve crime, but what about an artificial intelligence reconstruction of a criminal that may present flaws?

One of the most striking paragraphs from Big Brother came up on page 42 when Cory Doctorow discussed how despite advancements in gait recognition software allowed recognition of individuals from their movements, the software's success rate was reduced by any number of external factors including floor material, ankle angle measure, and your energy level. This variability can lead to errors in the system which can often have devastating consequences, especially when peoples' lives and security hang in the balance. The title, I believe, accurately reflects our society's desire to perfect our creations: we input more data points, update more software, create new tools, in a never-ending journey to create the perfect AI tool. But at what point do the ethical complications from such a tool lead to sufficient harm such that an objective cost-benefit analysis would overturn the progress of such a tool? No matter how many data points we inject, a piece of technology will never perfectly emulate the human mind. Every error/mistake that's caused by the inaccuracy of technology threatens our stability, and is only magnified as the scope of the instrument exists. One particular example exists in the NSA. What would be the fallout of an inaccurate terror watch list that was compiled using the latest data points? Although this question is astronomical, it is important that we examine this issue with the utmost scrutiny.

The Cryptography Question of our Time: Surveillance vs. Privacy

Yes, I did in fact take the title from the syllabus.

It is one of the most consequential arguments of the modern world and especially in this country. Towards the end of chapter three and into chapter four of Cory Doctorow's novel, Little Brother, Marcus, the main protagonist of the story, reveals to the reader that he feels very strongly about his privacy. At this point in the novel, Marcus has been detained by the Department of Homeland Security and is being interrogated by the "severe haircut lady". She demands that Marcus unlock his phone, to which Marcus responds, "I've got the right to my privacy" (49). He makes it very clear that his privacy is of utmost importance to him even despite constant threats and continual interrogations.

Marcus goes on to explain the importance of privacy in his own life and how having even just a little part of his life completely hidden is essential for every person. He uses the analogy of privately going to the bathroom or privately being naked as a way to show that having things only for yourself is actually in fact healthy. The culmination of his argument is this: "It's not about doing something shameful. It's about doing something private. It's about your life belonging to you" (57).

This particular passage stuck with me because of its particular relevance, especially in this course. While many believe in giving up some privacy in exchange for security, Marcus presents the flip side of the conversation and is adamant about making sure his security is his own, something that every human being deserves as a basic right. And while I may not entirely agree with his argument, it gives light to what other people have concerns in regards to the problem at hand.

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.

Privacy VS Terrorism

At the beginning of the book, when Marcus skips the school with his friends, a terrorist attack happens and the Department of the Homeland Security “arrest” them since they doubt the Marcus and their friends may take part in this serious event. Without any strong evidences, DHS asked them to provide all of their privacy in order to find out the wirepuller of this event and the methods of committing the crime. In order to gain freedom, Marcus and his friends tell all of their passwords to DHS. Finally, they (without Darryl, one of Marcus’s friends) are released by DHS, but they are under the surveillance of DHS, especially for Marcus.

This series of events that DHS has done to Marcus’s friends catches my attention. I have heard of the interrogations of some departments catches people and ask them same question over and over again even though the they are innocent. I know what the department has done is trying to reduce the terrorists and build a safer country for other citizens, but they should do these when they have enough evidences. What they are trying to solve is good for the country, but the way of approaching their goals is wrong. The secret department of every country should investigate more before suspecting. At some serious situation, catching any people that may be the terrorists as soon as possible is seemed to be efficient of not letting go the true terrorists and is easy to implement, but these secret departments can improve their way of investigating and data-mining to reduce the possibility of catching the wrong person. By improving this, there will be less complaints about their actions and more benefits to the citizens.

Good Bad Secrets

After San Francisco's security overhaul, one of the latent consequences were all the "not-terrorists" that were caught as a result of the increased surveillance measures. Marcus specifically mentions husbands and wives caught cheating, kids caught sneaking out, and one teenager whose parents discovered he had been visiting the clinic for AIDS medication. These people certainly aren't terrorists - in fact, they're not even drug dealers, thieves, or criminals to any extent. They aren't guilty people, just "people with secrets" (121).

I believe the ability to keep secrets, to some extent, is a completely necessary aspect of any society. I'm not saying that sneaking out is right or wrong, and I'm certainly not saying everyone should cheat on their spouses, but that these are things that should be discovered (or not) and dealt with by the family, not the government. The government has a duty to ensure the safety of its citizens, but only after obtaining consent from its citizens. And in this case, citizens did not give consent to having details of their private, personal lives exposed. Take, for example, a sexually active gay teen growing up in an extremely religious and conservative family. He may need to visit Planned Parenthood to obtain information and medication to stay safe; however, he may not have come out to his parents yet and may not want them knowing this information for a multitude of reasons. Though this case is nuanced, it represents a more broad category of secrets that are kept for the benefit of both the individual and the family. There will always be secrets that need to be kept and actions that need to be hidden, and it is not the government's duty to interfere.

Privacy VS. Security

For many years, the debate about encryption and hiding messages has come down to one trade off: personal privacy vs. communal security. In his article “Mining Student Data Could Save Lives,” Micheal Morris takes a strong stance on this debate. His argument pertaining explicitly to universities, he claims that if universities could prevent tragedies if they looked into student's data more. He believes that a technique called “Data Mining” could be used to prevent events like stalkings, suicides, and mass shootings on campuses.

Morris begins his article with an analogy to a school shooter and crystal ball. He portrays a vivid image of a student holding a glock and then states “If only there had been a way to look into a crystal ball and see that this horrific confrontation was about to occur, it could have been prevented.” This sets up his main argument that schools could prevent serious tragedies if they only had a closer look into the lives of their students. Morris then explains that this “crystal ball” is, in a way possible through data mining. Data mining would involve a similar process to, as Morris explained, credit card tracking. When a credit card company sees that you have an irregular pattern of spending, they will shut off your card because of the possibility that it has been stolen. Similarly, certain patterns of behavior online can be indicative to a university of potential real life actions. An online history of looking at automatic weapons might let the university know of a potential shooter threat. Knowledge of a google drive draft of a suicide note might allow the university know of a potential victim of suicide. With the right data, the university may be able to save lives. However, people have begun to value their data privacy so much that they have a problem with universities tracking these sorts of data. Still, Morris argues that it is worthy of losing some privacy. 

I completely agree with Morris’s argument. First, this system wouldn’t even involve a major sacrifice of privacy. It wouldn’t monitor students talking about drinking or parties or anything of that sort. It would only monitor for behaviors that could pose a serious threat to students. Second, I believe that most people fear systems like the one Morris describes not because they value privacy so much but because of how the government’s similar system has not worked out. In the post 9-11 world, the US government has become notorious for non-consensually taking citizens data and doing nothing good with it. People fear that it will be the same with universities. The difference is that a university can do far less to hurt a person than the government, and that the universities will be operating more smaller systems with a much more specific task. The potential for data abuse is much smaller. For those reasons, I believe that universities should be doing whatever they can to prevent these tragedies.

Mining Mystery: Should we mine Student Data for more Protection?

Morris’s central argument revolves around the incorporation of student data mining in order to counter possible future threats. He calls this “the next natural step” in using private information to prevent external threats. Morris goes on to detail how administrators could track social media usage, shopping patterns, and further online activity in order to make assessments on whether a credible threat exists. 


The central issue in this debate lies between privacy and security. Are students’ rights to privacy outweighed by administrators’ need to provide safety and security for their students? This question isn’t limited to college campuses, but can rather be applied to society as a whole. Discussing the role of authority, particularly governments, in our daily lives is of the utmost importance and a daily ideological struggle. I both agree and disagree with Morris’s argument. It’s important for administrators to do whatever is necessary to protect their students, but violating the privacy of their students is not the path to go. Aside from the obvious moral enigma, such an act could give more power to authority and reduce self-accountability. Allowing the administration to monitor what students do online would lead to mistrust; dangerous, secretive behaviors; and a need for students to “hide” what they are doing online. A common-sense solution would combine certain aspects of Morris’s argument with the other side. Allowing the student population to decide which aspects of their online life they want monitored would provide more credibility to the administrations’ efforts to increase safety, as well as provide increased trust and accountability of authority.


How much power we are willing to give authority is a central tenet of modern society, and no discrete answer exists. The best possible solution takes into account both sides’ arguments and will help administrators provide better security while also protecting student privacy.


They Can’t Monitor What We Can’t Avoid

The immanent threat of school shooters is a sad but unfortunate reality of today’s world. In “Mining Student Data Could Save Lives,” Michael Morris contends that universities possess a crystal ball of sorts. By allowing students to access the university’s private network with personal email accounts and wireless internet access, schools have the ability to monitor student’s online activity. Morris offers an anecdote of when monitoring virtual activity would be efficacious:

“If university officials were to learn that a student had conducted extensive online research about the personal life and daily activities of a particular faculty member, posted angry and threatening comments on his Facebook wall about that professor, shopped online for high-powered firearms and ammunition, and saved a draft version of a suicide note on his personal network drive, would those officials want to have a conversation with that student, even though he hadn't engaged in any significant outward behavior? Certainly.“

In this particular scenario, it in indisputable that this student was a threat to both himself and others and that mining his data saved numerous lives. This is an extreme, worst-case-scenario example. Morris discusses campus threat-assessment teams which look to identify such behavior. Given knowledge of a troubled student’s intentions, a university certainly has the right to intervene. However, in this modern world, the internet is no longer a luxury, but an integrated part of the education system. Schools maintain learning management systems so that all classes have online components. Having a computer is no longer an option, but rather a requirement of being a college student. Shouldn’t students have at least some right to privacy? Anything posted on social media, such as the threatening Facebook comments, is out for public view and can absolutely be tracked. Even flagging students for visiting suspicious websites and browser searches while on the university’s private network is acceptable. But mining data from personal emails and documents directly from a student’s computer without warrant seems unethical and invasive to me. In the age where we keep everything stored on our phones, business, personal and otherwise, I believe student’s have some right to maintain anonymity.

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