The History and Mathematics of Codes and Code Breaking

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The Perils of Perfect Security

The idea of perfect security is a tantalizing one on the surface. It guarantees anonymity and protection from unwanted attention; it facilitates and protects a bedrock of democracy, that being freedom of speech. Altogether, it’s no surprise that, in the interest of preserving the core values of democracy, people would want perfect security implemented for their digital communications. However, with perfect digital security comes a price, one that society may not be willing to pay.

As Simon Singh argues in his The Code Book, once PGP became a widespread method of encrypting civilian communications, it became clear to the American government that such a tool could be employed by malicious entities to mask their activities. In this vein, Singh provides two extremely compelling arguments for why perfect security may not be in the best interest of the people. First, he presents the idea for evidence collecting in a court of law. Here, Singh provides evidence that, during the 1920’s, police forces actively made use of phone wiretaps to listen in on communications and gather incriminating evidence. These practices were upheld by the Supreme Court and were widely accepted, and thus helped the police do their job more effectively. With the advent of digital communications and perfect security, the police would lose this avenue of gathering evidence, stunting their ability to collect evidence in a discreet and non-invasive fashion. By doing so, police would be forced to gather evidence physically, which may even put lives on the line that don’t need to be at risk in the first place.

Secondly, on a national security level, Singh also shows how international and domestic terrorist groups have used and will continue to use modern encryption technology to keep their plans and communications private and untraceable. Using examples of events like the Tokyo Subway Gas attacks and even the computer of a World Trade Center bomber, Singh creates a dark picture where terror attacks are able to be planned and executed with little in the way of countermeasures, which ultimately puts innocent lives at risk.

As such, it’s clear that while perfect security is attractive on the surface, the inability for the proper authorities to covertly access information when the need arises puts innocent lives on the line. Altogether, its a steep price to pay for not wanting anyone to read your emails.

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.


Little Brother’s Marcus and The Doctrines of Terrorism

Before Marcus holds the first alternative/video-game-generated/XNet run press conference the world has ever seen after the gross media bias taking place in response to the Don’t Trust “riot,” Ange gives him this pep talk—“If you want to really screw the DHS, you have to embarrass them…your only weapon is your ability is to make them look like morons.”

Although perhaps a little simplified in this instance, the influence of one common adage is pervasive—How do you fight a war against terrorism, a fight against ideology? You introduce better ideas.

The influence of doctrines on the war on terror such as this one in Little Brother is not surprising, although I will admit, I found it the slightest bit ironic. While plenty of idealists are familiar with the theory of introducing new and better ideas, Doctorow’s main character Marcus turns this theory on its head, instead using his knowledge of the dark web and his impressive ability to mobilize other likeminded young idealists to take a different approach. So how do you, if you are Marcus, fight an ideology (in this case the distorted ideas about privacy by the DHS)? You recruit a brilliant group of internet vigilantes to prove the ideas are wrong by speeding up the process of self-implosion inevitable for the bad ideas. You can spend your whole life trying to spread new, better ideas—the process will be long, tiring, laborious, and might seem absolutely fruitless at times—or you can take a page out of Marcus’s book and sabotage an entire operation to make the bad ideas so present in everyone’s lives that they are unrefutably bad. Although I definitely admit Marcus’s strategy is not the most orthodox of practices, I genuinely admire the guts.

Choosing Between Right and Wrong

If a person was to make a piece of software available on the Internet that was used for malicious reasons by criminals or foreign governments, I do not think that they would be responsible. The person who created it just came up with the technology. They did not force people to use that technology in the wrong way. When something new is invented, the inventor thinks about all the good things that their invention can do not the bad. Take the computer for example. The first computer was made to help humans do what they could not do. It helped them remain efficient. Should the inventor of the first computer be blamed for all of the crimes that are committed on computers? No, it is not fair to the inventor.

I believe that everyone has free will, and they get to decide between choosing the right path and the wrong path. The software is just a fork in the road, and the users of the software choose what path they get to go on. People that violate the inventions of others for harm are choosing the wrong path. I do not think that the inventor should be punished since the person committing the crime made that choice on their own.


Intent – What’s the Big Deal?

I do not believe that anyone should be held accountable for the actions of others if they choose to make their software public. Before I explain why, I want to open with this opinion being contingent on one caveat: intent. Unfortunately, intent can be hard to quantify, but I will preface this condition with an example to at least attempt to unpack what I mean by intent.

I believe that if one lives in the United States, whether he or she agrees with the current circumstances or not, the actions taken by that individual should not intentionally inflict harm. They can protest, organize groups, and lobby for change, but the actions taken should and cannotIntent bring harm to others intentionally. Everything can be abused, but the original intent is what is so important to keep in mind. So, for instance, if someone develops a software that could breach the encryption of the NSA and then they distribute the software to terrorist organizations or other countries, they are committing treason. The intent was to breach the NSA and to do harm to the national security of the United States; that was the goal from the beginning.

This is what distinguishes the difference between the actions of someone with ulterior motives and those of PGP. My ultimate impression of the circumstance was adequate summed up when Singh stated that the software of PGP was “so secure that it frightened the Feds” (Singh 314). I feel that the charges brought upon Zimmermann had nothing to do with his intended actions and more to do with the threat he and his software posed. Furthermore, I do not agree with anyone being held accountable because “if you don’t do it, someone else will.” Again, simply look to the case of PGP. The second Zimmerman was unable to continue the development, “engineers in Europe began to rebuild PGP” (Singh 314). In most circumstances, the ball will continue to roll forward. Governments can attempt to ban as much as they want, but someone, somewhere else, will do it.

Not making the world a better place

Admittedly, restricting strong encryptions by the law enforcement and national security agencies do have some advantages toward crime fighting. However, the law enforcement and national security agencies can’t deny people’s right to protect their own privacy.

Singh noted: ”Civil libertarians argue that the widespread use of encryption is essential for guaranteeing the right to privacy.” Without strong encryption, people’s data will be exposed to everyone. People’s personal information online or the messages they sent all rely heavily on encryption to be kept as their own privacy. Would the world be better if the database of the giant companies is put online without encryption? Will that be beneficial for fighting crimes? Definitely not. Criminals will have more targets to attack. Also, with knowledge of encrypting, the public can even help the police or national security agencies to fight the crime. Restricting encryption on the public can’t stop the criminals from using them due to the high level of technology they have nowadays as Singh claimed in the book. In general, restricting encryption methods from the public is definitely not making the world better or safer.

On the other hand, the government can’t just forbid others to use or learn encryption and monitor the public at the same time. Singh wrote about the unjustified wiretaps utilized by Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon. Edward Snowden also showed the wiretapping ways used by the government to control the public. Under these circumstances, people should have their rights to learn about these encrypting methods used by the government instead of being restricted to getting in touch with it.

Privacy or Terrorists?

One passage in Little Brother that I found particularly interesting was a line said by Drew Yallow, Marcus’s father, while they were arguing about the effectiveness of the DHS budget increase. In response to Marcus claiming that the DHS investigations were a breach of privacy, Drew asks, “What’s the big deal? Would you rather have privacy or terrorists?” (118) Ignoring the logical error (I’d much rather have privacy and not terrorists, thanks) and assuming that he meant to ask “no privacy or terrorists”, this line caught my attention because it seems to perfectly encapsulate the central theme of the novel, and of the security debate in general. From the perspective of the government, the need for security vastly outweighs the need for privacy, which made it easy to justify the decision to take away all individual rights pertaining to privacy. However, from the perspective of the Xnetters, privacy is a right that should not be violated, even in the name of national security, so they found ways to circumvent the constant surveillance through internet encryption and secret meetings.

Personally, I stand somewhere on the spectrum between the views of the DHS and the Xnetters. I would be very opposed to the amount of surveillance the government in Little Brother imposed on its people, but I’m also not completely opposed to a certain extent of surveillance as long as it stays within reasonable bounds. I believe that governments and other administrations should be allowed to surveil certain networks, such as school-provided wifi, and public areas, but any privately owned property and private areas such as bathrooms should be off-limits unless there is probably cause. To answer Drew’s questions, I’d much rather have no terrorists, but not if it costs all of my privacy.

Universal Surveillance – Worse Than Terrorism?

In Cory Doctorow’s novel, Little Brother, an argument breaks out between Marcus and his new social studies teacher on pages 206-211. The logistics of the argument surround Mrs. Andersen’s opening statement to the class, “Under what circumstances should the federal government be prepared to suspend the Bill of Rights?”

Marcus openly engages the teacher and his fellow classmate, Charles, by defending his view that the “Constitutional rights are absolute.” Essentially, he believes that the Constitution should not be interpreted loosely in a way that would benefit the government. The two opposing him, however, firmly believe that it is okay to bend civil liberties so long as it is on the grounds of good intentions.

What stood out to me the most during this argument was when Marcus proclaimed that, “universal surveillance was more dangerous than terrorism.”

This brought me back to our class discussion over the second blog post, which was in regards to student surveillance. The belief that both Mrs. Andersen and the article writer, Michael Morris, had in common was that giving up a civil right, such as privacy, was the only way to secure safety.

Of course, there is no right answer to this debate. Everyone wants to be safe, but at what cost are people willing to secure it at?

My belief is that once someone experiences the true nature of universal surveillance, they see the complexity of the matter. That is why I side with Marcus on this debate. Universal surveillance creates a form of terrorism in itself. Everyone is forced to look over their shoulder and wonder if their actions will be interpreted as terrorism. As seen in the novel, teenagers were able to disrupt a government agencies’ system of universal surveillance. They were able to disrupt travel patterns, “walking identities”, and even create their own network that was practically unbreakable by the government.

My point is, everyone has something to hide – and not all of it involves breaking the law. Our privacy is something that makes us who we are. It gives us the chance to break away from society and digest what has happened during our busy day. Criminals will always find a way to get around the law: it is who they are. That is why a more organic approach needs to be taken to this new era of cyber warfare. Unfortunately, I do not have an answer to what that is, but I do know that society would not be the same if we were not able to freely be who we are today.

The Paradox of the False Positive

One passage from Little Brother that particularly caught my attention was the part from chapter 8 in which Marcus discusses the paradox of the false positive.  It begins with Marcus explaining his plan to fight back against the Department of Homeland Security’s ramped-up surveillance and “safety protocols” that he believes to be violating the personal privacy of the citizens of San Francisco.  He talks about a critical flaw in the DHS terrorist detection system, which is that the accuracy of the terrorism tests isn’t nearly good enough to effectively identify actual terrorists without incorrectly accusing hundreds or even thousands of innocent people in the process.  Due to the extreme rarity of true terrorists, the tests meant to increase safety end up generating far too many false positives that result in people feeling even less safe.  As Marcus says, it’s like trying to point out an individual atom with the tip of a pencil.

This passage made me reconsider just how efficient automatic detection algorithms really are.  It’s logical to believe that a 99% accurate test is reliable, but when there is a very small amount of what you’re looking for in a very large population, a 1% error can cause major problems.  Thinking back to the article that discussed universities’ use of data-mining to identify possible school shooters or other at-risk individuals, it’s clear that the paradox of the false positive could cause similar issues in real-world situations.  The number of would-be school shooters is so small compared to the total student population that it would be extremely difficult for any tests to accurately identify them.  Overall, Little Brother‘s discussion of the paradox of the false positive demonstrates the importance of having reliable identification tests with sufficient accuracy to take on the rarity of what they are meant to find.  Otherwise, you might just end up working against yourself.

What Would I Give Up?

In a post 9/11 America, which is all I’ve ever known, I am paranoid. When I enter public spaces like movie theaters or airports, there’s always an irrational fear in the back of my head that something is going to go wrong. This fear was undoubtedly placed there by terrorists, so they are clearly succeeding in their goal of instilling fear into the public. Oddly enough, my main concern in these scenarios is the lack of apparent security. For example, as I’m sitting down to watch a movie, it dawns on me how easy it would have been to sneak a weapon into the theater, even after the attack at Aurora. The same can be said for school. In fact, I know of someone at my high school who brought a lethal weapon with him to school multiple times. Not once was he caught. I feel like I have a good reason to be paranoid.

So what would I give up to feel safer? If anything, I’d be perfectly ok with more security. The most obvious implementation would be metal detectors at entrances to places. This would be a small inconvenience, and it would ease my paranoia immensely. I’m tired of living in fear, and enhanced security measures would make me feel much safer. Despite popular belief, more security in this regard would not mean the terrorists are winning, because I (and likely many more people) would feel safer as a result.

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