Cryptography

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.

Admiral Hall's Decision

The action of Admiral Hall is unethical. When the Room 40 deciphered Zimmerman telegram, Admiral Hall got to know how important this information was and the greatness of deciphering enemy’s ciphertext. He got to know that Germany will begin his plan in two weeks, but he chose not to tell America immediately. However, when the allies wanted America to join the war, Admiral Hall had to tell America this information. Hall did not want to provide Zimmerman telegram to America, but he finally did, so why didn’t tell America earlier? Hall could evaluate the cause and effect or ask for the intention of America earlier. Admiral Hall made a decision that made no sense since his wish of not letting Germany know they has deciphered the text is disclosed finally. He used the hand of Mexicans to try to hide this information, but he could choose to do this as soon as he got the decipher text. Hall made a decision that may cause more problems. The Zimmerman telegram provided the information that the Germany will initiate the attack in two weeks, but to be prepared for the attack, America needs more time. Two weeks are short but still valuable, but Hall’s decision shorten this time and may cause more casualties. Thus, the decision of Admiral Hall is unethical.

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.”

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.

 

The Ethics of Military Cryptography

We ran out of time at the end of class today to wrap up our discussion of the ethics of military cryptography. Sorry about that! I think our in-class activity worked well, but it needed a bit of discussion at the end. In lieu of that discussion, I'll share a few more perspectives on the Zimmerman telegram debate here on the blog.

Claim: Admiral Hall's decision to withhold information from the Americans about the Zimmerman telegram was ethical.

  • In the short run, telling the Americans would have saved lives, but maintaining the ability to decipher German messages would save more lives in the long run.
  • Hall's first responsibility was to his own country, and that country--and its whole way of life--was at risk from German invasion.  That was a bigger risk than the Americans faced, and a more immediate risk.
  • Who were the real bad guys here? It was the Germans who were attacking ships. It was the Germans who were lying to the Americans.
  • The Americans, as it turned out, were going to drag their feet anyway.  Telling them wouldn't have brought them into the war any earlier, and it might have compromised British cryptography efforts.

Claim: Admiral Hall's decision to withhold information from the Americans about the Zimmerman telegram was NOT ethical.

  • By not telling the Americans, people definitely died. Had the British told the Americans and the Germans realized their codes were broken, more lives might have been lost in the long run—but, in the short run, people definitely died.
  • What England did was as unethical as what Germany did—manipulating the Americans for their own ends.
  • Britain wanted America as an ally, which is a trust-based relationship. Hall was keeping secrets from the American government and undermining the trust between the nations.
  • Hall could have justified his decision by saying that he was doing what was, in his mind, best for America. However, that wasn't his place--it was the responsibility of the American government to make such decisions.
  • Didn’t Hall plan to let the submarine warfare happen so that America would be prompted into war? Dragging more people into a conflict is only going to result in more deaths.

Keep in mind that, in an effort to tell engaging and accessible stories, the author sometimes omits some of the complexities of the issues he discusses. As you read, consider ways that you can approach these issues from multiple perspectives.

The Road Less Traveled By

Admiral Hall's decision not to inform the U.S. about the impending U-boat attacks was complex, to say the least. The reasons why he would share his new intelligence with President Wilson are clear--the U.S. and Britain were allies to some degree, and it might possibly bring the U.S. into the war. However, I find his reasoning against sharing this new intel to be quite persuasive. By sharing the intel, he could lose a valuable asset which could save lives, and he might not even be believed. This is where the issue of ethics comes in.

Sharing the intel on the Germans appears to be the most ethical choice. It does right by an ally, and it saves lives. Then again, the lives possibly lost by this revelation of a way of gathering information could outweigh those saved. Once they found out the British had broken the cipher, the Germans would certainly change their encryption methods, and the flow of information would be cut off. This event could possibly lead to more losses in battle, more lives sacrificed. These two possibilities create the well-known gray area of war, in which many ask, "which path will save the most lives?" There was no true way to know which way to go, no way of figuring out just exactly how many lives would be lost either way. Admiral Hall was stuck between a rock and a hard place, his own personal catch-22.

Despite his dilemma, Admiral Hall, in my opinion, still managed to make the most ethical choice. Not only did he save the lives of his people, but he also saved the lives of the endangered Americans. By choosing to keep his intel secret, but orchestrating its revelation by way of a different channel, he managed to choose the path that wasn't apparent to many others. He kept his decryption success secret, and caused the American government to learn the true content of the telegram through a completely non-incriminating source: a mistake in the enemy's actions. Had he not done this, I might say his actions were unethical, that he should have saved the lives most definitely in danger. However, by managing to protect both potential victims from harm, I believe that Admiral Hall took the most ethical path available.

Great or Good: Ethics and the Zimmermann Telegram

While Admiral Hall had some justification for his actions, his decision to keep important information from President Woodrow Wilson and the American government was unethical in the sense that passing that information on could have potentially spared lives. That being said, Admiral Hall had some reasonable justifications for acting in the way that he did. Hall intended to hide the fact that Britain had cracked Germany’s in order to prevent them from changing their cipher. He also came up with a plan to make it seem as if the information had leaked from Mexico so that Britain was not suspected of intercepting the message. Even so, deliberately keeping important information from the US was unethical.

The Zimmermann telegram brings up an incredibly controversial and open-ended debate: can it be justified that the lives of a few be deliberately risked to save the lives of more? The Zimmermann telegram was specifically about unrestricted use of German U-Boats and US involvement in the war, but it ties into overarching themes of wartime sacrifice and the value of truth within government and military. I believe that such sensitive information should be shared as soon as possible with all of those who may be affected by it. Granted, if it had not been for the ingenuity of Britain’s Room 40, Admiral Hall would not even have access to the information which he withheld from the United States. In the end, though, he did have access to this information and knowingly and unethically withheld it from the United States.

The Wartime Gray Zone - Ethics and the Zimmerman Telegram

British Admiral William Hall ultimately made the decision to keep the United States in the dark about the contents of the Zimmerman telegram, but was it ethical? I think the answer depends on whose perspective you view it from.

From the perspective of Great Britain and their military efforts, it was the ethical (and right) thing to do. If Britain made the decrypted telegraph public, or even just gave it to the Americans, Germany would know that their encryption had been cracked, and Britain would immediately lose the cryptographic advantage that they had just gained. Since America was not officially in the war, and was neutral, Britain had no real loyalty to warn President Wilson. Furthermore, the unrestricted submarine warfare would start whether the Americans knew about it beforehand or not, and the British had not completely finished deciphering the message before that date came and went.

From a more global perspective of humanity, it was not an ethical decision. Admiral Hall had the opportunity to warn the United States about attacks that might harm or kill Americans, but he did not. His motives were also partly selfish for Britain, wanting American to join the war and the Allies, giving them a much-needed boost on the European front. In my opinion, a military alliance where countries don't share intelligence about possible attacks against their allies is not a good relationship and is an unethical way to conduct such a "friendship."

Ethics in the midst of a war are never black and white, and the Zimmerman telegram is no exception. Admiral Hall made a strategic and ethically arguable decision in keeping the telegram from the Americans, but William the human made an unethical decision in choosing to not potentially save the lives of innocent people.

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