The History and Mathematics of Codes and Code Breaking

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Ethics vs. Strategy

The Zimmerman Telegram was a telegram from Germany to Mexico containing crucial war information about The Great War. It included the Germans' plans for unrestricted submarine warfare, as well as a proposal asking Mexico to ally with the Germans and invade the US. The Germans had hoped to attack the US on three fronts: Mexico from the South, Japan from the West, and Germany from the East.

However, this telegram was intercepted and decrypted by the British, led by Admiral Sir William Hall. Upon reading the telegram, rather than warning the Americans about the U-Boat warfare that was about to ensue, he decided to keep the telegram a secret. He did this because he knew that if America publicly condemned Germany's acts of aggression, the Germans would know that their encryption system had been compromised, and strengthen it. Admiral Hall was thinking long-term; he knew that the Germans could not win the war.

While Admiral Hall's decision may not have been completely ethical, I do believe it was the right decision to make. Yes, American lives were compromised due to the unrestricted submarine warfare, but if the Germans had changed their encryption the Allies may not have won the war. In wartime, it's imperative that the most strategic decisions are made. In eventually using the stolen telegram from Mexico to convince America to enter the war, I believe Hall found a happy medium between handing over the telegram and keeping it a secret. Many times, secrets are necessary if kept for the greater good.

Ethical Implications of Wartime Actions

When Zimmerman was sworn in, America rejoiced at what they thought was going to be a new era of German diplomacy, and the greater likelihood of peace in Europe.   But little did they realize that the new foreign minister was intent on increasing Germany's aggression. Two years into the war, Zimmerman successfully lobbied for a lift on the ban on unrestricted submarine warfare. He believed that a new fleet of U-boats could lead to Britain's surrender within six months; the only issue was America's neutrality. This new move would almost certainly push America's allegiance to the Allies, so Zimmerman devised a cunning plan: he would persuade Mexico to declare war on America, which would allow time for Germany to win in Europe and prepare for the American campaign. But thanks to a clever move by British ships, Germany's underwater cables had been severed before the war, so Zimmerman's encrypted telegram to Mexico was intercepted by the UK.

Admiral Hall's cryptanalysis deciphered parts of the telegram, and correctly deduced what Zimmerman's plan was. But Hall decided to not to tell America for two reasons: he did not want to miss vital information and give America an incomplete message, and he did not want the Germans to figure out that Britain had broken their encrypted messages. Admiral Hall was justified in his decision to not give the message immediately to America.

The decision to allow unrestricted U-boat warfare would have gone through in either scenario, and such a drastic move on Germany's part might have been enough to push America to fight for the Allies. But the more important reason that Hall's decision was justified was that Hall was sacrificing the short-term consequences for the long term gains. If the Germans knew that Britain could crack their codes, that would have been enough of an impetus for the Germans to develop a stronger encryption; thus, the British would have lost a major source of intelligence that would have proven disastrous, possibly fatal later in the war. The long-term effects of being able to know the plans of your enemy, their locations, and modes of attack are invaluable; either way, when America chose to remain neutral after the resuming of unrestricted boat warfare, Hall exploited the Zimmerman telegram to pull America into the war.

Although Hall's decision may seem unethical on the surface, the long-term benefits significantly outweigh the short-term negatives.

Britain's Fallacy

The conclusion of World War I brought a sense of elation and confidence for Allies, as they brought upon the defeat of the Central Powers. Utterly convinced that the reparations burdened upon Germany would be sufficient from ever causing such blatant militarism again, the Allies embraced peace. A common phrase that was uttered to describe World War I was that it was the “war to end all wars.” The world was still reeling from the conflict but many truly believed that it was the end of large scale conflict. Publishing a full history, revealing the inner workings of the British military was an embodiment of that idea, the idealistic view that the world had indeed changed. In reality this was not the case and a blatant disregard for the rapidly militarizing Nazi Empire was one of the primary factors which led to the Second World War. The idealistic perspectives following World War 2, imagined cooperation among countries to create a peaceful era. The League of Nations is further evidence to that idea. Though idealistic, one could argue that the released knowledge spurned on the Enigma machine which led to Alan Turing’s machine which eventually became the modern computer. Additionally, it could be argued that with Hitler so paranoid of repeating the mistakes of his predecessors, a new code would have been created regardless. The release constitutes a sharp break from common cryptography practices, as the ability to break a code becomes infinitely more powerful if that ability is secret. The hope was that ciphers would never be needed again. 

All is Fair in Love and War

In The Code Book, Simon Singh details the codebreaking successes of the British military during World War I--successes that often needed to be kept secret and prevented the spread of some important, yet sensitive information during the war. One such piece of critical information was the Zimmerman telegram. While some may think it completely unethical of Admiral Hall to withhold the information gathered after cracking the Zimmerman telegram from American intelligence, it was simply a fact of wartime priorities. The British were the ones embroiled in war, which is a time when a nation looks out for their own interest over the those of other nations (especially the United States, which was not active in the war at this time). Additionally, while America would surely suffer from the impending unrestricted u-boat warfare and lives would be lost from torpedo attacks, there are many reasons why Admiral Hall’s actions to allow these attacks to happen would also save lives in the long run. First, the information gathered by Britain’s Room 40 was crucial in British victories and undoubtedly saved the lives of many British soldiers and civilians. Also, Admiral Hall hoped these attacks would implicate America in the conflict in such a way that necessitated their entrance into the war, a policy chance that would hopefully help the Allies to win the war sooner and thus save more lives in the long run. Therefore, the lines drawn in this instance of ethical dilemma are not black and white, as is usually the case in times of war.

I Forgot to Tell You I Broke That Awhile Ago

Germany having no clue their ciphers were practically useless during the First World War was genius on behalf of British Intelligence. Britain, haven broken their cipher and not allowing Germany to know had turned out well for the Allies because it discouraged Germany from creating a new cipher. In my opinion, it made sense for  Winston Churchill and the British Royal Navy to release their histories of the war and specifically their knowledge of German encryption when they did. Doing so gave the British a lot of clout within the world of crypt-analysis and national intelligence as well as it gave the men who worked in Room 40 the recognition they deserved. Also, it would be pretty naive to think that if another war were to come about that Germany would use the same codes and encryption techniques they used previously. Even if the British had kept it a secret, Germany increased their military technology so much during WWII that it would not be a far stretch to believe they would incorporate something similar to the Enigma at some point. I think what mostly came out of Britain revealing they had broken Germany’s cipher in the way they did was to make Germany look like a disorganized and careless nation, practically saying, “We beat Germany because they were oblivious to their intelligence and because they were blinded by their own pride.”

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.

Ethical? Necessary.

In the movie “The Imitation Game,” there is a scene that Alan Turing and his team deciphered a message indicating that there is going to be an attack on the British Navy. After celebrating for finally able to beat the Enigma Machine made by Germany, they calmed down quickly and decided not to present the message to the British Navy. It's confusing for me at first of why they chose to keep the attack as a secret, but I then understood the importance of keeping some of the messages private for the good of the big picture. It took unimaginable great effort for Turing’s team to figure out how to defeat the Enigma Machine. They can’t risk the chance to let the German Intelligence find out that they cracked the code. If they changed the Enigma Machine into other types of encrypting methods, more damage than a team of warships would be made and the war might have gone in another direction. In special times, some small sacrifices need to be made to win the war.

      It’s just like what Admiral Hall did to President Wilson. If they can’t find a source of retrieving the information that they can explain, the Germans will change the encrypting methods, and the British cryptanalysts will lose the advantage. Is it ethical? It’s probably not. However, it’s the war situation; so it needs to be treated differently. Admiral Hall did this so that the American, the most powerful country in the world, can join the Allies and fight German. It’s the war strategy and leads to an acceptable result. When the messages were spread out later, the damage made can be accepted for the privilege of the great world war.

On the other hand, after the Americans joined the Allies, it’s also helping the Americans if they have access to decipher the German messages. Therefore, it’s necessary for Admiral Hall to keep some messages secret. It’s too much to risk as they will lose all of their achievements the fact that they broke the German Code was known.

Necessity and Usability

The primary factor favouring the advancement of military cryptography is when a country realizes their war efforts have been compromised due to the lack of strong encryption. For example, Arthur Scherbius’ Enigma machine was unpopular with the German military prior to the publishing of the histories of the First World War as written by Winston Churchill and the British Royal Navy. The Germans’ had yet to discover their war efforts were been manipulated by the British and saw no need to improve their current cryptography methods. Once the Germans were made aware of their cryptographic fiasco during World War I by the two British documents, they were forced to advanced their military cryptography. The Germans saw the need for the Enigma in their war efforts and thus began mass production. It is important to note that Scherbius first saw the need to replace the ineffective cryptographic methods used in World War I while the German government did not. One person realizing the inadequacy of a country’s cryptographic methods was not enough to advance military cryptography. For example, Alexander Koch, Arvid Damm and Edward Hebern all failed to find a market for their cryptographic advancements because the need for stronger encryption was not recognized by the masses. Although the art form itself was advanced, the advancement was lost in history if recognition by the masses was absent.

A second factor favouring military cryptographic advancements is usability. During the early phases of the first World War, Germany had advanced into French territory. However, the French destroyed their landlines as their armies retreated so Germans were forced to use radio communication. The French did not need to use radios so there were no messages for the Germans to intercept and decrypt. Thus, the art of decryption was unusable to the Germans and they did not develop a military cryptanalytic bureau until two years after the start of the war.

The Power Of The Individual

One of the main reasons the cryptanalysts at Bletchley Park were successful could be contributed to the German overconfidence in the Enigma machine. Their hubris blinded them, and this blinding trust in the strength of Enigma ultimately led to the German downfall. However, certain individuals also contributed to the ultimate defeat of the Germans - Hans-Thilo Schmidt and Marian Rejewski. These individual contributions would prove invaluable throughout the war.

Schmidt's story shows the effects of the negative German culture. Because he was deemed unworthy, he was forced to leave his position on the army. In addition, his failed business and his descent into poverty left him resentful toward Germany. Had the Germans simply decided not to cut him from their ranks, they could have potentially avoided the Allies' cracking of Enigma. Disillusioned with his country, he sought revenge. Without Schmidt's treachery, the Allies would never have obtained a functioning Enigma machine that could function similarly to the German military machines.

Rejewski's work at the Biuro Szyfrow introduced the importance of mathematics and logic into cryptanalysis. With his famous Rejewski Chains, he was able to crack the earlier version of Enigma before the Germans added more scramblers and plugboards to make it more difficult. His work proved that mathematics and logic were extremely important once cryptography became mechanized. The work of linguists analyzing patterns was no longer enough. Despite Rejewsi's work being essentially useless as Schmidt had given up the German keys for months, his work made it possible for the Allies in the future war efforts to crack the new and improved German Enigma machine. This crucial information gave the Allies a head start and the confidence that Enigma could be beaten.

Without these two individuals, the Allied cryptanalysts may never have achieved victory over the Germans. Although there are many factors that contribute to their victory, the influence of brilliant individuals cannot be ignored.

Morality v. Pragmatism

The question of ethics comes up a lot in regards to cryptography. At its core, things tend to only require encryption if, for some reason, someone doesn't want them seen. More often than not people do not mind others seeing their good, moral deeds. What's interesting about the Zimmerman deciphering is that the morals in question have nothing to do with the encrypted information, but rather what was done with it.

On the one hand, what Admiral Hall did was incredibly immoral. He actively chose to withhold information that could potentially prevent countless American deaths. The United States had already lost over a hundred lives to German submarine warfare, which is why the President was so adamant to prevent future attacks of that nature. By actively withholding the information within the Zimmerman telegram from America, the Admiral made the choice to endanger the lives of Americans should his cryptographers fail to break the rest of the cipher before Germany mobilized its fleet.

On the other hand, what Admiral Hall did was not necessarily immoral but rather pragmatic. If the Germans had discovered that British forces could decipher their messages, the encryption techniques would have only become more sophisticated. This increased sophistication would have seriously hurt long term war efforts, which (since the war continued on for many more years) would most likely have resulted in more lost lives than would be found from the submarine warfare.

Also, there is no telling what the Admiral would have done with the information had his analysts not cracked the rest of the cipher in time. Singh describes a situation where the Admiral was waiting for the rest of that decryption in case a caveat, or some other relevant piece of information, was revealed in the rest of the text. It is entirely possible that, in the event his cryptanalysts had failed to decode the rest of the telegram, he still would have passed the decrypted message onto the Americans.

In cases such as these, and in any case of war, it is difficult to talk in terms of morality. Rather, it is clear that the actions the Admiral took worked out favorably in the end. Had the message not been deciphered at all, or had the Admiral never revealed the message to the Americans, we would be telling a very different story today.

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