The History and Mathematics of Codes and Code Breaking

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Nothing to Fear but Fear Itself

In Little Brother, Marcus, the main character, frequently argues with his father over the matter of whether we should give up some of our personal freedoms and privacies in order to grant more power to those seeking to prevent harm from threats like terrorism. It's a difficult debate that I have occasionally had with myself, and I've never quite come to a conclusion, but in one of those arguments, Marcus raises a great point: are we really hurting the terrorists by adding security?

The main goal of terrorism is there in the name: terror. They want to scare people-- to make them feel unsafe. That's why their attacks always come in such violent and public forms. One terrorist organization cannot possibly hope to kill each and every citizen of the United States of America, but they could quite possibly make us all fear for our lives.

Marcus's point is this: by adding more checkpoints, more data mining, more tracking, more security, less privacy, are we really acting against the terrorists? Would you really feel safer if the police considered you a potential terrorist and had eyes, ears, and possibly guns pointed in your direction at all times? If they consider you and everyone you know a suspect, then you yourself might begin to suspect those around you.

Suddenly, everyone you see on the street is a potential murderer.

Suddenly, you aren't sure if you should eat at a particular restaurant because there aren't any open seats near the door. What if someone inside started shooting?

Suddenly, you have to think long and hard about accepting a job offer because you would have to take the subway on your commute. Sure, the pay is better, but what if a bomb went off while you were underground?

In an effort to prevent terrorist attacks, law enforcement can inadvertently carry out the end goal of those attacks: terror.


Arguments for Pro-Security

In the debate of privacy vs. surveillance in the United States, there are a few arguments that can be made in favor of having more surveillance as a security measure. The biggest and most obvious argument is that it aids in ensuring national security. Without electronic surveillance, it would be almost impossible to catch criminals and terrorists in our technology-filled modern society. At this point, video surveillance would not be enough even the government was somehow allowed to put cameras in our houses. Now that so many of our day-to-day interactions occur on the internet, criminals can communicate with each other with the push of a button. Electronic surveillance of digital devices allows for these communications to be monitored, which makes it much easier to crack down on these crimes.

Another argument for security stems off of the previous argument. When the government says they are collecting our data through electronic surveillance, they may mean just that. Having electronic surveillance helps a lot, but just because the government may be collecting data doesn't mean that they're constantly looking through it. There most likely isn't an NSA agent looking through each one of our texts and our social media accounts. But, one they have reasonable suspicion that a seemingly ordinary citizen is doing something shady, they have the data there, and they can finally use it.

Who Defines the Boundary between Surveillance and Privacy

When I first entered this class, I was very pro-privacy. But after hearing arguments from both sides, I have come to understand that surveillance is necessary. And the argument on our side is not against surveillance, but rather focusing on the word “wide latitude”. What is considered a wide enough latitude? Who is the one to assess that? When the government wants more surveillance that might not have been proven necessary, who is to stop them? The emphasis should be placed on the checks and balances that should be implemented into any surveillance system, and the establishment of boundary between surveillance and privacy.

One might argue that in face of threats to national security, one’s feelings about privacy should be disregarded. I agree that in times of crisis there should be certain measures of crisis. However, it would be a great downplay to say that “privacy” is merely a word or a feeling. Privacy is tightly linked to the freedom of speech. Whoever controls the surveillance controls the information flow, and in our time, information flow is everything.

Surveillance is not harmless because it’s placed in the hands of men. I need not draw any example from history because we can all come to the conclusion that men can be evil. Men could be wrong. Power could be abused. And surveillance is probably one of the greatest powers of the government in our time. Electronic surveillance in the interest of national security is necessary, providing that it’s effective and it’s in the interest of national security. However, the downplay of the privacy of citizens is unacceptable. The foundation of the nation, the first amendment of speech and its free press clause, could be compromised if all privacy is invaded.

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.

Pretty Good Anonymity

In Darkode, the hosts tell the story of a ransomware victim who was forced to buy 500 dollars worth of Bitcoin to gain access back to her files that had been stolen and encrypted. In the process, she came in contact with TOR which has as its central mission to provide anonymous communication between people through computers. Because of the secrecy it provides, the dark web (which can be accessed through TOR) is home to a host of cyber-crime including selling stolen financial information and other illegal goods and services. Similarly, the purpose of ZCash was to take the ledger system implemented by Bitcoin but to improve the product by also ensuring  mathematically guaranteed anonymity in every transaction. Although this is a significant upside, it also opens the currency up to some potentially dark uses, since this anonymity is exactly what criminals are looking for to be able to buy and sell goods illegally without arousing suspicion.

Although the days of perfect security are gone, this level of anonymity is pretty good. It allows anybody who uses these services to be confident that their identity is almost certainly anonymous, and this poses a significant challenge to the privacy vs. security debate: how can we allow people to have access to pretty good anonymity without losing the ability to track down criminals? After all, if ZCash worked as intended, you could easily see a list of all transactions that had taken place, but you couldn't figure out who was involved in them, creating the perfect smokescreen in which criminals can hide.

A comparison could be made to the selling of ski masks, gloves, and guns; all three can be used to do evil things, but all of them are still legal products that have legitimate uses. But the level of anonymity afforded by ZCash and other similar privacy-focused technologies goes far beyond what you could attain with a pair of gloves and a ski mask. Perhaps this nearly perfect anonymity has gone to far, enabling criminal activity without any significant benefits for legitimate uses. This is one of the most difficult questions to answer in the security vs. privacy debate, and one that could cast the deciding vote in which direction we as a society choose to go.

The Balance Between Privacy and Security

On the whiteboard, there are several phrases that are indicative of opinions that side with either privacy or security. Most notably, there is a quote from Benjamin Franklin that reads "those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety." In this quote, Franklin seems to express a pro-privacy viewpoint, and is saying that people who give up the essential right to liberty and just blindly go along with any policy that takes away privacy in the name of security should have neither privacy nor security. There are also other snippets that express pro-privacy viewpoints, such as "don't take our freedom away" and what seems like "...fear of freedom being taken advantage of."

On the other hand, some phrases supported a pro-security argument. "As much as necessary to feel safe" suggests that the writer is willing to give up all of their privacy if it meant adequate security, which is similar to the view that Marcus's dad holds in Little Brother. Another quote that stuck out was "we have nothing to hide," which is a major argument that pro-security activists use. If we have nothing to hide, then theoretically we shouldn't fear surveillance, but who'd want surveillance watching our every move, even if the actions are completely normal?

Another thing I noticed about the whiteboard is that for the most part, people used it as a medium for expressions that had nothing to do with the topic at hand. Many people just wrote their name or their Snapchats, or the numerous generic quotes about love, hate, and life. On an unmoderated forum, it's in human nature to say whatever they want as long as they know that they will remain anonymous. It also shows that a lot of people simply don't really care about the whole privacy vs. security debate, and would rather write something completely irrelevant to the question than express their opinion on the topic.

Compromising: The Best Solution to a Difficult Problem

On the privacy versus security display at the Newseum, the responses to "What would you give up to feel safer?" run the gamut from those who feel that they have nothing to hide, to those who believe that privacy is too important to sacrifice.

However, the Benjamin Franklin quote in particular caught my eye since I had never heard that before, and I thought that was a striking way of summarizing the pro-privacy position, especially hundreds of years before the advent of electronic surveillance. After a quick Google search, it became clear that his quote has been misused. He wasn't speaking about government surveillance at the time; instead, Franklin's letter was about a tax dispute between the state legislature and the colonial government during a period of French and Indian attacks. In fact, the "essential liberty" Franklin was referring to was not an individual liberty, but actually the freedom of the government to provide security to the people. In this way, Franklin's argument has been fundamentally misunderstood; if anything, he is clearly in favor of the government ensuring the security of the people, although his stance on the relative importance of privacy is unclear.

The majority of responses on the board though don't fall strictly on one side of the debate. They think it is best to strike a balance between surveillance (i.e. security) and privacy. Even the most radical advocates of privacy or surveillance must recognize that this is the most likely outcome in reality, since outspoken members on both sides will push back against the efforts of the opposite side once they try to tip the scales too much in their favor. I thought this was the main takeaway from the exhibit: there are people with strong convictions on both sides of the argument, and they will all fight for what they think provides the most benefit. Even if only one side can be correct in theory, in practice, we must strike a delicate balance between surveillance and privacy to keep everyone happy, free, and safe.

What do people find important in the debate over security vs privacy?

The question that was asked on this display at the Newseum was similar to the one we were asked on the first day of class. We were asked if we agreed or disagreed with giving up our privacy for more security. This question takes it a step further, and asks specifically what people would give up for that extra security. There were some expected responses that I saw, like "Text messages + phone records", "Freedom", and also a few other random answers that didn't really contribute to the purpose or message of the display. There were two that I saw that stood out though. One was "as much as necessary to feel safe". The other was the Benjamin Franklin quote, that said "Those who would give up essential liberty, to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty or safety".

These two responses stood out to me because they seem to fall on the two sides of the privacy vs security debate. The first one reminds me of a few of the characters from Little Brother who were on the pro-security side. Characters like Marcus's dad and Charles has the same mindset as this viewpoint. Marcus's dad felt okay with complying with anything the DHS said as long as it made him feel like he was safer. If it cost him an extra 2 hours going to and from work, then so be it. Even the hassle of being stopped by police for no reason was not enough to faze him. As long as the DHS was trying to catch terrorists, any violation of privacy was okay.

The other response reminds me of the argument that Marcus, Charles, and Mrs. Andersen had during their class period. Mrs. Andersen said something along the lines of "our founding fathers intended for the constitution to change over time as viewpoints changed". The Benjamin Franklin quote makes me feel as if this might not be entirely true, or at least not to the extent of what Mrs. Andersen said. I think they expected times to change, but some things were essential to a well-working government, and one of these was respect of the citizens privacy. On the other side, citizens shouldn't even have to consider giving up their liberties, but if they were given that choice, the founding fathers still believed that their liberty is more important.


What Would I Give Up To Feel Safer

To be honest, I am not good with the USA Patriot Act, because it means I have no right to hide any secrets. If somebody could look over all my private staffs without my approvement or even without my acknowledgment, I will feel invaded. However, I have to admit that there is terrorism in this world and our safety needs to be protected. The USA Patriot Act is useful to protect the country. The "watchdog" role played by news media and improved power of FBI did protect us after the 9/11 attacks. Therefore, I would like to sacrifice part of my privacy, but not all of it.

What I agree to give up, is the information on everything I've done and anything I've told to others, like the purchasing record, messages on social media, and all of my identity. In my opinion, these pieces of information are enough for the government to assess my possibility to do some violent behaviors as well as every individual. For example, if someone is going to make a terrorist attack, he has to purchase items like guns or bombs, reach out to terrorist organizations, and leave messages to his partners. One cannot finish a terrorist attack without any clues before in front of the public. To investigate related information is enough to prevent a possible violent behavior.

What I disagree to give up, is what I regard as real privacy. I used to write my diary in the memories of my cell phone. I have never shown it to others because I usually hide my secrets in it. How could it harm others if I let nobody see it? In this case, if the company of cell phone has a monitored plug-in and inspect my memories, I would be annoyed. The same, the pictures in my phone are also my privacy. If you suspect that I've hidden terrorist information in my pictures, you could find what I've sent to others without inspecting my phone directly. It is my right to hide some secrets in my own cell phone, so I would not give up this to feel safe.

Personal privacy need to be respected.

      The scene that hit me the most in the book The Little Brothers is what Winston faced and experienced in the jail and how he reacted to them. Although I heard a lot of rumors about how it works in jail system, it still surprised me of what they can do to a high school student who is probably not an adult yet. All the system, no matter the right of personal privacy or right to have an attorney, even the right to protect the juveniles failed to function  in front of the undecided charge on the teenager. Even worse they treated him badly both physically and psychologically just because of a crime that he was never ever involved in.  “She didn't want me to just unlock the phone. She wanted me to submit to her. To put her in charge of me. To give up every secret, all my privacy.” The sense of despair in the tone is filling all between the words.

       I used to hold the firmly belief that security is much more important than personal privacy. That I can sacrifice my little privacy for the sake of everyone in the society. And that’s probably what I’m gonna do if I’m in Winston’s situation. But seeing how Winston react to military threats. I began to think that my view toward this question is probably too superficial. I only considered my case whose personal privacy doesn’t mean too much for himself. For many other people it might means quite a lot. In this case for Winston it’s not something too much to talk about. “It’s his past doing’s coming back to him.” Instead, for lots of people, no matter the Business man having commercial secrets or even a cook with a secret recipe that made them successful, everyone need to keep something from the others to protect themselves and their results and personal life.It’s unfair for them to keep us their hardworking and daily life for a little safety which is not that approachable. Sometimes it’s even only someone’s trick to be in charge. It felt really embarrassing to let anyone know what you thinking about and know whatever anything happening to you. Just as the metaphor used in the passage of what it’s like to squat on the toilet in the centre of the Times Square. The book changed my view toward this question. Sometimes the sacrifice of privacy to trade safety is not used in a good way, but to monitor and control people instead. People’s personal privacy needs to be respected.

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