Cryptography

The History and Mathematics of Codes and Code Breaking

Tag: trust

Protection, or Paranoia?

"Some teens see privacy as a right, but many more see privacy as a matter of trust. Thus, when their parents choose to snoop or lurk or read their online posts, these teens see it as a signal of distrust." In this quote from her book It's Complicated, danah boyd points out the potential effects of strict parental control of computers. She discusses specific examples of teenagers who have a variety of opinions on this parenting policy.

In my experience, strict parental restrictions on computers and media are often ineffective parenting methods. While my parents were entirely trusting and never even checked my grades, let alone my computer history, my best friend's were not. Neither of us was ever doing anything we needed to hide, but it was clear to me the effect of our parents' different styles. For example, I was perfectly willing to give my parents my passwords, and we had talked about how I should be willing, but they had never asked for them--my friend's passwords were taped to the refrigerator. As we grew up, going through high school, I began to recognize the great disparity between our experiences. My parents trusted me to be responsible on my laptop, to come to them with problems or questions, and to monitor my own media. When I got a Twitter, for example, I let them know. My friend's parents, however, generally trusted her as long as they could verify that their trust was well-placed. Their restrictions diminished as we got older, but they were still present--and still a topic of conversation for us.

While my friend's parents meant well, they restricted their daughter's freedom to explore. She never really rebelled, but we would have lengthy conversations about what tv shows she would watch when we went to college, and why we thought the rules were unfair. The idea of privacy was a well-covered topic in our discussions. Looking back, her parents' rules caused my friend to wish she could hide at least something, while my parents' made me to feel free to come to them with anything. From my perspective, my friend never developed the kind of trust I have in my parents, because hers never gave her the chance. boyd's statement on this topic fits this observation. My friend never saw privacy as a right, but more as a signal of trust that she never received.

Privacy = Trust

Some teens see privacy as a right, but many more see privacy as a matter of trust. Thus, when parents choose to snoop or lurk or read their online posts, these teens see it as a signal of distrust.
-danah boyd
(It's Complicated, page 73)

I can remember in 8th grade when my friends' parents starting joining Facebook, not because they wanted to snoop on us, but because they saw Facebook as an opportunity to reconnect with old high school and college friends. However, some people did see this invasion into the "teen world" as their parents mistrust of them. Until recently, my parents have not had any desire to join social media (now my dad has a Twitter that he uses as a newsfeed for short, quick headlines). But more so than social media, my parents' surveillance of me in other ways has given me the same sense of distrust that the teens interviewed in It's Complicated expressed.

Until I turned 18, my dad received a text message every time I used my debit card, including where and how much. They also have the ability to (and they do) use the location services on my phone to see where I am. In short, if I wanted to go somewhere and do something without my parents' knowledge, it wouldn't be easy. Sometimes, it would seem that they don't trust me to tell them where I actually am and what I'm actually doing, but I'm sure their intentions are to ensure my safety in case anything were to happen.

In high school, I gave up some privacy to appease my parents and follow their rules. But now that I'm at college, our understanding is that unless I go off campus anywhere further than walking distance, I must let them know where I'm going. In other words, they trust me and give me the privacy to go and do what I please around and just off campus, and I expect that they won't betray that privacy by checking my exact location all the time. I think that in all aspects of life, the balance of privacy and trust versus safety and protection is an integral piece of the relationship between a teen and his/her parents. Even if we have nothing to hide, we associate having some privacy with the extent to which our parents trust us.

Oh What a Tangled Web

A Tricky Web of Trust

The passage in Little Brother that really intrigued me was the passage about “a web of trust” found on pages 153 and 154. The previous passage talked about public keys versus private keys and the risks associated with these keys. It is very difficult to make the public key incredibly public and a middle man can easily confuse the two people trying to communicate by secretly intercepting, reading and changing messages. The only way to ensure that communication is secure is to meet in person and swap keys, thus creating a secure web of trust limited by the pure number of people you can meet up with in person. However, if people keep passing on all of their keys to people they trust the ring grows and encompasses a larger group where secure communication is possible.

I think this is incredibly interesting since it seems then that any terrorist or criminal group would use this to communicate. Most partners in crime meet in person and would be able to devise such a plan to evade any potential middle men trying to intercept their communications. The passage seems to say that if you trust someone enough and see him or her in person, you can absolutely ensure safe communication with him or her. This ties into our discussions on whether the cryptographers or decrypters are winning and if such strong cryptos should even be allowed. In this case, the passage seems to be claiming that cryptographers will always win if they employ this strategy. This leads to questioning whether these encrypted messages are truly protecting innocent people or if they are masking and hiding criminals and terrorists. The argument could beOh What a Tangled Web made that cryptography that is unbreakable unless trust is broken is considered too strong and can be used too easily for harm. While this cryptography method may be used to protect individual’s privacy, I assume it would also be used to enable dangerous communication and activity.

 

Image: Oh What a Tangled Web by Jenny Downing, Flickr (CC)

Emotion vs. Logic: The Web of Trust

In Cory Doctorow’s novel, Little Brother, the protagonist Marcus Yallow and his comrades form a web of trust as a response to the DHS’s infiltration of the Xnet. The concept of a web of trust intrigued me. As a product of cryptography, the web of trust relies heavily on the actual trust between individuals and less so on the complexity of the cipher. The biggest weakness of the web of trust is not that the cipher can be broken, but that the people involved may be untrustworthy. In addition, one untrustworthy person can compromise the entire web because each person holds the others’ keys.  The danger of the web of trust is illustrated with Masha’s threat that she can compromise the whole web of trust because she is a part of it.

Another aspect of the web of trust that I found interesting was that it required the participants to meet in person. Although it reduces the convenience and accessibility of the web of trust, it greatly increases its security. As mentioned in the novel, public-key cryptography is vulnerable to the man-in-the-middle (in Marcus’s case, the DHS) and could result in the unknown interception and decryption of incriminating messages. With the web of trust, only those in the web have access to the public keys, and therefore all the messages received by others from the web are guaranteed to be legitimate.

The logic and encryption behind the web of trust is invincible to decryption. The intelligence of a cryptanalyst is irrelevant to breaking a web of trust; in fact, exploiting the instability of human relationships is the only method in which the web can be broken. Because the web’s security relies on human emotion and the trust between individuals, it could actually be potentially weaker than other forms of cryptography. The fickle nature of trust formed between friends and colleagues is a risk that could possibly equal the mathematical vulnerability of other ciphers.

Image: "wide web," by josef.stuefer, Flickr (CC)

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