The History and Mathematics of Codes and Code Breaking

Tag: zimmerman

Was Zimmerman Guilty?

In an attempt to bring RSA encryption-level security to the masses, Zimmerman released Pretty Good Privacy(PGP). But in his attempt to do so, Zimmerman had one large issue: The FBI had taken notice of his activities and were frightened. They were frightened because they believed that they would not longer be able to wiretap criminals and bring them to justice in Zimmermans’s attempt to bring NSA-proof security to the masses. Zimmer eventually published the PGP onto the internet through a friend, which the FBI deemed as “exporting munitions” because a foreign government or hostile power could have easily accessed it. This remains problematic for a number of reasons, but ultimately Zimmerman was wrong in publishing software on the internet because he did so with the intent to deceive the US government and provide top grade security for all, law-abiding citizens and criminals alike.

When anyone publishes anything on the internet, they should be able to face the consequences of their action. We’ve seen in the present how past videos or texts can come back to derail an established politician’s career. Anything posted on the web never truly disappears, and people need to be aware of this fact. Critics state that because Zimmer hadn’t actually sent the software to a foreign government, he shouldn’t have been pursued by the FBI; but the fact remains, Zimmerman published his work in an attempt to deceive the US government. And in fact, another more compelling argument remains: if country A sells weapons to country B, and country B is currently engaged in a genocide and A is aware of this fact, then Country A is at least partially to blame for providing the tools with which that genocide occurs. A key component of this argument is that those who provide the tools must know that their tools can and will be used to enact harm, and Zimmerman certainly fell true to this.

In all, this question is one that is difficult to answer, but if cryptanalysts publish software that has circumvented the government’s wished and that they know will be used for harm, such as Zimmerman, then such cryptanalysts are at least partially responsible for the consequences that ensue.

Internet Responsibility

The question of internet responsibility is one that has been debated for an extraordinary amount of years. I remember first hearing about it on the news with the site yellow pages. At the time, the owner of the site was being sued for the illegal use of yellow pages for sex trafficing. The argument was that since the owner was aware that the site was used for trafficking he should be held responsible for the illegal activity. In this case I believe the owner won as he did not do anything directly wrong. 

Although I could see how it would be easy to sue someone because of the activity done on their online forum, I do not believe it is just. The owners of the software or websites are simply creators and should not be held responsible for other people’s actions. Should google be sued for housing illegal content? No, because it is not responsible for what people upload to it. That seems obvious.The purpose of the site is important, however. A website made for a positive reason can not be punished if someone abuses the system. However, if a website is made for something negative it should reap the full consequences of its actions. 


Hall: Ruthless or Ethical?

Late into the first world war, top level German officer Arthur Zimmerman wanted to assert Germany dominance with a major offensive move. He wanted to start unrestricted U-Boat Warfare. He knew that a potential outcome of this would be the United States entering a war. His plan for combatting thisEthical was an alliance with Mexico. If the Americans entered the war, Mexico would ally with Germany and, using funds from the Germans, invade America to reclaim Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico. Zimmerman sent this message as a telegram that was intercepted by the British. This message was then quickly deciphered enough to crack its basic message, but not completely deciphered, and brought to British Admiral Hall. To the cryptographers’ surprise, Hall did nothing with the message. He believed that it was not worth it to convey these messages to the Americans because there could be vital information in the non-deciphered parts and because if America started reacting to Germany’s plans, it would be revealed that Germany’s encryption had been broken, compromising the Biriths’s intelligence position. It is important to wonder whether hall did the ethical  thing in this situation. I believe that Hall’s actions were ethical if he intended to do the most good for the most amount of people. 

I look at ethics in a utilitarian way. If an action is intended to accomplish  the most good possible for the most amount of people possible it is ethical. However, if an action is intended to benefit a small party but be harmful to the larger group, it is unethical. Hall’s position could have been unethical. By not sending America the decipher telegram, he was basically allowing America to be provoked by unrestricted U-Boat Warfare. Essentially, that means he was going to allow a deadly attack to happen for America to come into the war. If Hall was doing this just because he didn’t want to have to deal with Germany knowing that Britain had broken their encryption, this would be unethical.

However, the argument could be made that Hall actually was doing the most good for the most amount of people. It is possible that the British being able to decipher German messages was actually leading to lives being saved on a daily basis. It is possible that, had Germany stopped using their encryption because Britain could decipher it, more lives would be lost than in one unrestricted U-Boat attack. Additionally, Hall chose to hold the message rather than send it to the Americans because he thought that there may be vital information in the parts that hadn’t been deciphered. He did this on January 16th, leaving plenty of time for the whole code to be cracked before February 1st, when the U-boat attacks would begin. In this case, it seems that Hall is making sure everyone is safe and acting in the interests of the public. Therefore, I would argue that when Hall made this seemingly harmful decision, he was probably acting ethically by drying to do the most good for the most amount of people. 

Wartime Measures

It’s important to take into account the circumstances of a situation. In times of war, different standards are often applied to domestic and foreign policy as countries are working in their best interests to defend their home front. In terms of the Zimmerman telegram, I think it was a strategic move for Britain to not reveal its contents to President Wilson. Had Britain not kept the information in the telegram a secret, Germany would have discovered that their communication system had been cracked. As a result, they would have come up with a stronger, more secure, method of encryption, making it much harder for the Allies to intercept their messages. In turn, it is possible that the Great War would have continued for much longer, and more lives would have been lost in the end.

Despite the United States claiming a policy of neutrality, it was obvious they were supporting the Allies. The British knew the Americans were on their side. Because of this unspoken alliance, I believe that if the United States were truly in a path of immense crisis presented by unrestricted U-boat warfare, the British would have notified President Wilson. Because the dangers presented weren’t catastrophic, it was a good choice for the British to keep their knowledge to themselves.

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.

Digital Encyption: Modern Day’s Most Important Luxuries

Strong public encryption greatly benefits the general public. The ability to send all your messages with the knowledge that it is secure and will only be read by the recipient is a modern day luxury. One of the arguments against strong encryption points out that if you don’t have any secrets to hide then your should feel safe sending your emails without encryption. However, a intangible benefit of encryption is that feeling of security. If we knew that all our messages, actions, and conversations were watched by the government or some stranger, we would not feel comfortable to speak our minds and act on behalf of  our own identity. We would feel the need to create an identity that performs actions and sends messages that are compliant with the rules. Free speech is obstructed without strong internet encryption. Singh’s book mentioned how Zimmermann received many thank yous for posting PGP because they were now able to “create resistance groups in Burma.”

Secondly, if strong encryption was cut off from the public, would society be more safe. The government would like to argue that more criminals and terrorists would be caught without encryption techniques, but without any protection of the general public’s data, a lot more havoc will happen to more people. Digit information is the most important part of our lives, and if it was all unprotected, it would be the equivalent of leaving all your doors and windows of your house open while you are away. We need strong encryption for our safety and privacy, the government has to catch criminals without hurting everyone else.


The Morals of the Zimmerman Telegram Decipherment

  1. When the Zimmerman telegram was deciphered by the cryptanalysts of Britain’s Room 40, Admiral William Hall decided not to tell American President Woodrow Wilson about its contents because doing so might let the Germans know that Britain was capable of breaking their codes.  Given the danger posed to America by the unrestricted U-boat warfare indicated in the telegram, was this ethical of Admiral Hall?

I think that in a time of war, it is very hard to judge the hard decisions of people in power. In all wars, there will be casualties, and the hard fact of life is that in war the generals and people in charge need to minimize overall losses, not save every life. I think that overall the decision was ethical because strategically it had to be done. They chose not to tell President Wilson because they knew that the Germans were starting unrestricted submarine warfare and that the US would most likely join the war because of this. This was a calculated decision that paid off for the British in the end. Having the codes to someone else’s messages is extremely valuable, much more valuable to the British than having the US in the war a few weeks sooner. This was most definitely the strategic decision for the British. With these codes, they could be able to save countless more lives in the future by intercepting key attacks. Even with the case in World War II, the Allies had to let certain attacks happen that they knew were planned so that the Germans were not tipped off about the cracking of the Enigma. Although it is a very tough decision, I think that the British made the right decision in not telling the US about the Zimmerman Telegram.

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