Cryptography

The History and Mathematics of Codes and Code Breaking

Tag: secrecy

Face app: How companies use seemingly innocuous apps to gather data on us

The interview with Chris Gilliard dove into some interesting points, from the way colleges gauge student interest by the number of times they open their email to how doorbell can surveil their customers through the use of the Ring camera. But one of the more interesting points I thought came from Face App. This app recently became viral for its “aging” photos, where user submit current pictures of themselves and the app will provide an estimation of how you look in the next couple decades. From happy churchgoers to Lebron James, millions of people have used this app: but where are their pictures going? Face app stores visual data about their users and is then able to curate content or sell that data to other companies, often without or awareness or consent.

But this app brings into focus the broader argument of how companies violate our privacy and take our data through everyday actions. Even when browsing the App Store or google searching items to make a cake, big tech is monitoring our movements to better understand our behavior, and how they can better fit our needs and thus gain more profit. When we as users submit photos to face app or tweet on twitter, we must understand that we are giving away bits and pieces of ourselves to strangers whose sole intention it is to make a profit off that. And it’s important to hold companies accountable for what apps they create, especially if they’re taking user data without an explicit agreement on not selling said data. Although it’s ultimately the companies’ choosing to release apps such as face app, we the users must be more aware of what using those apps entails.

Whether we can or we should: an exploration of privacy in the digital age

“What’s at stake is not whether someone can listen in but whether one should.”

This quote from It’s Complicated by Danah Boyd perfectly illustrates the complex role of privacy in an increasingly digital age. As opposed to the past where locked doors and hushed conversations limited parents’ intrusions into their children’s privacy, the rise of public chat rooms, profiles, and pages on social media platforms have allowed increased access to the social media profiles of students. One common argument that parents often make for the stalking of their kids’ social media is the fact that it’s accessible to the public, and therefore they can look at it. But that argument fails to account for whether or not they should look at it. I have the ability to run through commons and make a scene when getting my breakfast; that doesn’t mean I should do it, because doing so causes a public disturbance that violates social etiquette. It’s this sense of social etiquette that drives our sense of morality, and what should prevent parents from excessively looking at their children’s’ online profiles without cause. This argument should be extended into the information age and evolve into a sort of digital etiquette. Even if online accessibility has increased, boundaries remain very real and should be respected no matter the medium of information exchange. It’s well known that government agencies such as the NSA possess the tools to decipher our encryptions and monitor our messages; but doing so knowingly violates citizens’ rights to privacy without just cause and can turn into a slippery slope where all communication is monitored by an overarching surveillance state. However dystopian that may sounds, its effects are being observed in realtime where increased violation of boundaries often leads to more secrecy and unexpected consequences.

Just because an action can be applied isn’t reason enough for its application. Those who use this justification often have ulterior goals, and it’s necessary that parents, authorities, and everyone in between recognize that boundaries exist and respect them. The “can” vs “should” argument will no doubt persist, but I hope this blog post was able to clarify the debate around this topic with respect to privacy. 

Environmental change in Cryptological Perception

Mary Queen of Scots fully believed that her cipher was unbreakable, so she laid bare her plan to take control of Scotland. Thus when her cypher was encrypted, there laid a written confession on the table, ready to take her to the gallows. This historical example led to the development of an environment of secrecy and mistrust, where cryptanalysts held the power over cryptographers. Even if one made a seemingly “unbreakable” code, they did not know if another expert codebreaker was waiting to crack it. This never-ending cat-and-mouse game of codes has continued through the centuries, always adapting and evolving. The knowledge that one’s code could be broken fostered more caution on behalf of the cryptographer, wherein they sent codes that were more cryptic in nature even in plaintext, knowing that an expert codebreaker might crack their code.

This strategy was a direct consequence of the knowledge that someone more experienced may crack your code – after all, if that was the case, why not make your plaintext message more difficult to understand as well? This would add an additional layer of security, and ensure more protection.  This shift was a significant one in cryptography history, and represented a transition to a more secretive/hard-to-decipher language where nothing was taken for granted.

The Theatricality of Cryptography

The first chapter of Singh’s The Code Book is packed with historical examples of cryptography. The Greeks, Persians, Arabs, French, and English, to name a few, were just some of the infinite number of societies and civilizations of which cryptography was crucial to their development. However, most of the examples described did involve people in positions of power. Kings, queens, nobles, and military leaders of all types have had to use cryptography to defend or expand their nations; clearly, cryptography has been crucial to changing history.

Despite the importance of these examples, I do believe that there has been a need for cryptography since the dawn of written language. I can’t imagine that cryptography was only used by well-resourced people; there has always been a need for encryption and secrecy, even if it’s on the most rudimentary level. Perhaps these are the only examples that survived, or perhaps Singh chose to include them because of their dramatic nature – after all, he does need to entice the reader somehow. It would be foolish to say that cryptography requires exceptional resources.

Yes, the most theatrical and interesting stories usually include a plot, some characters, and a dramatic, dire consequence that will result if the code is decrypted. But we can’t discount the more simple, day-to-day interactions that may have required people to encrypt their messages, like a potter who may have needed to protect his or her recipe for glaze, or a citizen who wanted to hide the contents of a letter from their government. I can’t imagine that examples such as these, though less exciting, didn’t exist before the stories of kings, queens, armies, and wars.

Why Some Intel Should Remain Secret

Prior to the publication of Winston Churchill’s The World Crisis and the British Royal Navy’s official history of the First World War in 1923, the Germans were completely oblivious to the fact that their encryption system had been compromised.  Since Admiral Hall managed to make it seem as though the unencrypted version of the Zimmermann Telegram had been intercepted in Mexico, they didn’t know that it had actually been deciphered by British cryptanalysts.  As we discussed in class, cryptographers tend to be overly confident in the security of their codes. Most will not assume they have been broken unless there is clear evidence that they have.  Because of this, the Germans had no reason to believe that their messages weren’t secure, so they initially displayed no interest in investing in the Enigma machine after the war.

However, when the British publicly announced that their knowledge of German codes had given them a major advantage in the war, the Germans realized they needed a stronger encryption system.  This realization is what led them to adopt the Enigma machine for use in military communication encryption during the Second World War.  The formidable strength of Enigma posed a major challenge to the Allies’ cryptanalysts, appearing to be unbreakable.  Although it was eventually cracked, Enigma allowed the Nazis to communicate in secrecy for a large portion of the war, giving them a significant advantage.

There are a few reasons that could explain why the British announced their knowledge of Germany’s codes after World War I.  For one, they were likely motivated by pride.  They wanted to show what their cryptanalysts were capable of, possibly with the intention of intimidating other countries.  Furthermore, they probably figured that since the war was over, there was no harm in revealing the strategies they used.  However, after seeing the consequences that arose later on, it is clear that the British should have stayed quiet.  Had they kept their knowledge a secret, the Nazis might have continued to use the same methods of encryption into the second World War.  If so, the Allies would have been able to know their plans ahead of time, resulting in a much shorter and less bloody World War II.

British Pride and Competition

In reality, the knowledge that Britain had deciphered Germany’s codes should have remained a secret for several more decades. Regardless of the reasoning, staying ahead of the opponent, even in a time of peace, provides tactical advantages on many fronts.  I believe, however, that pride and competition with the United States ultimately lead Churchill and the British Royal Navy to publish the information.

A gruesome war that tore through most of Europe had finally come to an end. It was a time of celebration for the countries that had triumphed. Publishing the findings showed the military tact that had been used by Britain and their ability to triumph their foes. It proved the resourcefulness of the country and allowed for a sense of pride to be instilled in Britain’s citizens. This also allowed Britain to show that they had been vital in the victory of the war. To some, it looked like the United States had joined the war efforts, intercepted messages, and swiftly ended the war in a year. It allowed British citizens to not feel like their ally had done everything.

Although Britain allied with the United States during and after the war, superpowers in the world are still each other’s competitors at the end of the day. Across the ocean, “Herbert Hoover had been elected President and was attempting to usher in a new era of trust in international affairs” (Singh, 1999, p 141). After the war, in several countries, a lack of transparency between the government and citizens was felt. Since the United States was appearing to be more open with its’ citizens, Churchill most likely felt pressured to respond in some way. By publishing his findings, he was able to show that by keeping some secrecy during the war, Britain was ultimately able to keep the upper hand on Germany. Now, the information was viewed as not being pertinent and it was a good way to loop the citizens in.

If Britain had not revealed this information publically, it is possible that the Enigma machine would not have been utilized by Germany. After all, many were hesitant to adopt new forms of encryption due to cost and ease of use; WWII potentially could have been a far different war.

Ethics in Wartime

Would you sacrifice one life to save a thousand? It is a morally stupefying question that has gone against our societies ethics. Do we favor the collective good over the good of the individual? However ambiguous the answer is during peace, I believe the answer is clear in wartime. The collective good takes precedent. Admiral William Hall knew this to be true when making the decision to keep the Zimmerman telegram a secret.

The implications of the Zimmerman telegram were possibly multiple civilian casualties as a result of unrestricted U-boat warfare. Admiral Hall knew this and weighed his options. He knew if he passed on the information to President Wilson, the Germans would inevitable know that the British had cracked their code. This with the fact that Admiral Hall knew that the U-boat warfare would most likely incite The U.S. to enter the war all factored into his decision to keep the intelligence a secret.

Admiral William Halls decision reminded me of the movie The Imitation Game staring Benedict Cumberbatch. In the final scene after the British cryptanalysis team crack the seemingly unbreakable Enigma code machine, Alan Turing (played by Benedict Cumberbatch) realizes they cannot immediately act on every piece of information, even if it means saving hundreds of life’s. In a captivating moment the characters agree that the outcome of the war depends on the secrecy of their work’s completion. In closing, I believe that Admiral Hall’s decision was ethical in the time and place he made it, even if today we might regard it conversely.

 

Admiral Hall’s Choice to Consider the Long Term Threats to a Nation.

Admiral William Hall decided to keep the information that the English broke the enciphered Zimmerman telegram a secret because he believed that the knowledge for decrypting the telegram would be an asset to the them in the near future. Those who were thoughtful of the future such as Admiral Hall would believe this choice to be ethical. This choice is very strategic and could be useful if the Germans continued to pass similarity sensitive and important information with the same encryption key. Having the ability to decipher these messages could save the lives of many civilians if the Germans eventually decided to attack. Through this lens it is reasonable to consider the decision as ethical because it is in the interest of the public and benefits their well being.

However, when considering the immediate importance of the content within the Zimmerman telegram, it makes sense that the choice to withhold the information seems unethical. The sensitive information about unrestricted U-boat warfare and threat of Mexican aggression posed immediate harm to many civilians in American and at sea. Hall’s choice seems indifferent to the lives current at stake and prioritized the future of a nation more than the nation’s current safety. It can be argued that the welfare of the nation’s future is dependent on that nation’s present welfare and that Admiral Hall should have responded with more urgency to the immediate threat to the people. His choice can be seen as ethical or unethical depending on what one prioritizes more.

 

Keeping Breakthroughs Secret

One of the main factors that contributed to the success of the Allied cryptanalysts over the German cryptographers was the secrecy that surrounded the Allied code breaking efforts.

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Photo Credit: Dr John2005 via Compfight cc

The Allies were able to keep their code breaking efforts shrouded under a curtain of secrecy and so even when a breakthrough occurred in Bletchley Park, the Germans remained unaware that their codes were broken and continued to send message through their “secure” system. For example, the Allies had exploited the fact that the Germans embedded their key twice at the beginning of their messages to avoid error, and used this information to help identify the settings of the Enigma machine. Had the Germans known earlier that their key transportation scheme actually hurt the security of their communication system, they likely would have changed the way they provided the key and made it harder for the cryptanalysts to make breakthroughs in deciphering their messages.

The Allies swore all who worked in Bletchley Park to secrecy for good reason. The secrecy gave the Germans a false sense of security in the strength of their system, buying the Allies more time to decrypt messages as well as experiment with new deciphering techniques in case the Germans changed their system upon learning that it was not as impenetrable as they had believed.

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