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April 08, 2002 |
I interviewed Simon Singh, author of The Code Book (1999), during a campus visit to Centenary College. After he mesmerized one of my classes and delivered a series of energizing lectures, we chatted about various aspects of cryptography today.


Bryan Alexander:
In your 1999 book, specifically in chapters 4, 5, and 6, you make an impressive case for the importance of Alan Turing, both as cryptography and as major Allied war hero in WWII. Just a generation ago, he was scarcely known beyond small circles of computer historians and codebreakers. Now, in 2002, how is the recuperation of Turing going?

Simon Singh: Everyone knows about Turing. He is an herroic figure, now recognized as a person who laid the foundations for computing; who made an unparalleled contribution to codebreaking in WWII, who save countless lives – on both sides. And a figure or martyr for the gay movement. Breaking the Code, a great play, and Andrew Hodges’ book (Engima) were the first works to bring his work to light, doing an extraordinary job in researching Turing’s life, documenting his contributions. From Hodges, Hugh Whitemore got the inspiration for his play. Derek Jacobi’s great performance… took Turing’s story to a new audience, millions of people who saw the play. Whenever I give a talk, I start with the assumption that people know who Turing is. From the statue in Manchester, to Web sites like and Andrew Hodges’ homepage, Turing is established.

BNA: Why did he remain in obscurity, and why emerge only now?

SS: Bletchley Park [the home of the British Enigma-cracking effort] was a secret story for decades. Turing couldn’t tell his own headmaster that he’d actually fought in WWII. Not until the late 1970s, when computers become big, and artificial intelligence becomes something people can talk about; and the Bletchley Park story gets revealed in documentaries and movies and books. It was natural, then, for Turing to come to the fore. Additionally, there’s the tragic story of a man persecuted for his sexuality. I bring this up whenever I talk to schools. For schoolkids, sexuality is still hard to talk about.

BNA: What about this Hollywood film, U-571? Doesn’t that give a misleading take on crypto and WWII?

SS: The whole story of the second world war is too huge. U-571 is a tribute to some brave people who did things to contribute to the codebreaking effort. It’s such a wild fantasy – the Americans destroyer sinks, they’re attacked by their own side – it’s all fantasy. But like Saving Private Ryan, which tells the American part of D-Day, it focuses on one aspect.

Generally, code-breakers don’t get appreciated for their work. And today code-breaking is brute force, which isn’t really interesting. Code-breakers are much more appealing.

Speaking of brute force, what's the historical role of Microsoft and cryptography? The Redmond giant has famously missed the boat on several important technological revolutions, like the early internet.

SS: For a thousand years, this business has been dominated by governments, the military, and occasionally the church (the Vatican, for example). This continues into the start of the 20th century. Only when the telecommunication revolution takes off, do business start thinking about crypto. Things like the telegraph inspire business to start thinking about it. Not until you get to people like Diffie and Hellman, do academics and people outside government start playing a role. Today, there are major, major players in the public realm. Crypto has moved very much into the public realm – you have research wings of businesses and schools.

BNA: What's your assessment of cypherpunk's political aspirations? The 1990s saw an explosion of political dreams, based on cryptography. (See Crypto Anarchy, Cyberstates, and Pirate Utopias, MIT)

SS: The number of people on line was much smaller, back then. Only now are people needing to think about these issues. The time wasn’t right, then. Maybe in the next 10 years there’ll be a mass shift towards encryption for and by everybody. Now, it’s shocking how unaware people are. Encryption has invaded so much of our lives without people being aware of it. Things like cell phones – whenever you make a call, it’s encrypted. It’s so transparent – you don’t have to type a password, you don’t hear a crackling noise, no red light lights up. In a way, that’s a bad thing. I was talking to a company about a new encryption scheme for e-commerce. You buy something online, you type in a password, then they ring your mobile; you’d have to type in a 4-digit number, then the transaction would be completed. It’s overkill, but if someone steals your credit card, they won’t be able to do anything unless they steal your mobile. The consumer has to do something. If they type in the code, they feel as if they’re doing something. Their ethos is “don’t make encryption too transparent”.

BNA: Like cars, omnipresent but not largely understood?

SS: No, passengers know they’re in a car! People know they have a phone, they know it tells them talk… but they don’t know it gives away their position.

Technology and the Present

Why is steganography so appealing, both popularly and technically?

SS: It’s important from the point of view that it’s subversive. Crypto is clandestine; but to send messages, and to have you not even know I’m sending them, has a great appeal.

Practical application: what would happen if there is a huge clampdown on crypto? In some countries, there [already] is. I imagine steganography would be used every day by human rights groups… People ban you from sending encrypted messages, because it looks like you’re sending random noise. But sending steganography means you can’t be arrested for something they can’t find.

BNA: Habeus corpus for the information age?

SS: Right, that’s the parallel. There will be greater development, but not necessarily greater use. People will develop it. For now, no one will send email by it. Like quantum cryptography – systems now are perfectly strong.

BNA: Will we see more of steganography, especially after several rumors about al-Qaeda using it?

SS: Yes, 9-11 might awaken interest.

BNA: I’d like to ask about a public key issue. Are public key servers going to play a useful role?

SS: Yeah! But most people haven’t created their own keys.

BNA: How is quantum cryptography developing, currently? Quantum computing certainly looks burgeoning.

Quantum cryptography gives a new level of security. It really works. It’s part of quantum computing, but people tend to think of massively parallel computing – that’s a long way off. But quantum cryptography really does work. It’s a real technology. You can send quantum cryptography messages for tens of kilometers. Problem is the ideal wavelength – photons – you can’t have them scattered, so you have to tune them to the ideal wavelength. At that wavelength, photon detectors aren’t very good. 50-60 km, that’s been done. You could set up a quantum cryptography network between several banks, government buildings. A university in Geneva did a successful experiment with this, and has set up a little company to commercialize it. They figure that the Swiss banks’ data is so valuable, it’ll be worth investing in QC - long-term, for protecting yourself for centuries. In Los Alamos, they’re looking at QC through air – tougher, due to particulates, turbulence, etc. They’ve send QC message through the desert for distances of up to a mile, or half-mile. That doesn’t sound like a lot, but sending messages upwards, to a satellite, means that you don’t have to go through much atmosphere, after a point.

BNA: With the success of distributed computing projects, such as Intel's anthrax research and SETI@HOME, this CPU-sharing strategy seems to be a significant part of the cyberscape. What's happening with distributed decryption projects, like

It really doesn’t matter that much. People bandy around these numbers - key length, years of cracking, etc. Distributed computing won’t make much of a difference. What happens is, people like RSA are always keen to find out the state of codebreaking. So they’ll offer codes to be cracked , for prizes – one way to crack is by distributed computing. That gives RSA, the NSA, etc. a good idea of where we are today. But these challenges are trivial, in comparison with what’s available out there. Like the code in my book (“The Cipher Challenge”, for prize money), I could have made it much harder. People offer deliberately weakened encryption.

BNA: But what about Moore’s law?

SS: But it might take a hundred years to catch up, and I can just use bigger numbers. It’ll take a qualitatively different computer.

BNA: Cell phones have taken off in the past few years, with enormous numbers of people shifting from land lines to mobiles. As cell usage takes off quantitatively, and expands in quality (texting, Bluetooth, broadband), will users become concerned about security and encryption for their communications, thereby boosting popular awareness of crypto?

Crypto will still be built in. People will buy cells, assuming them to be as secure as a land line, oblivious to the workings of crypto inside. I don’t think it’ll register in that way.

BNA: What about technologies like Bluetooth, and possibilities of cell spam?

SS: There are advantages to being swamped with useful stuff. You arrive in Munich, and find out a jazz musician you’ve been looking for is playing there.

In this sense, crypto is a facilitator. You want what it facilitates, but don’t have to worry about the process.

BNA: So the mere prevalence of cell crypto won’t spur a popular awakening of interest in crypto?

SS: No. Digital signatures might do it, if we need them. Once you have a digitial signature, people can send things to you. That takes effort, requiring awareness on the part of the user.

Policy and Culture

: Since the September 11th attacks, many people have been rethinking their attitudes towards policies and technologies with security implications. On the one hand, there’s a drive towards allowing more governmental scope to surveil and control crypto (see, for example, the Patriot Act, or the NSA’s Assured Information Directorate. On the other, there’s a strong civil libertarian defense, based partly on a sense that al-Qaeda’s crypto savvy might be overestimated. How have American and public attitudes towards crypto changed, since 9-11?

SS: There must be a greater push for a clampdown.

People say the genie is out of the bottle, but things can change. There’s no reason the government couldn’t clamp down, with such a threat. Similarly, if a government abused its control, there’s no reason there wouldn’t be a pro-privacy backlash. But the population really needs to understand the issues at stake: global surveillance systems like ECHELON, how strong these systems are. We say a code is unbreakable, but they might not realize that that really means unbreakable.

BNA: Since cryptography has increased in popularity over recent years, what is its role in education? For example, what do you think of the teaching of crypto - aside from using what's clearly the best book on the subject?

SS: In Britain, it’s not something you would teach. Only computer science people would be interested. There’s no real place for it. Why bother teaching kids about crypto when they’re still struggling with basic maths? The curriculum’s too rigid. In the US, on the other hand, you have a greater degree of curricular freedom, and might be able to do more.

I’m interested in using crypto to teach others things. With young kids, for example, I can talk about the Mary Queen of Scots cipher. It’s an easy, trivial cipher to make and break. In doing so, the students learn about structure of language, frequency analysis, gathering data, and doing statistics. Analysis, plotting bar charts, going through the process of logical thinking, trial and error… and at the end of it, they get to crack a real Elizabethan message. They get to learn some history: the Protestant-Catholic rivalry, the tale of Mary (which ends in a bloody execution, which kids generally like!). I’m all for giving more history in math.

This approach seems inherently interdisciplinary, unlike a strictly computer science approach.

SS: Yes. And you can think of codes mathematically, as well. Caesar cipher – you can think of it as “adding 5”. That’s something a ten or 11-year old can think about. You can get kids to encrypt their own names, you can have competitions, and so forth. For older kids, what if you multiply, rather than add, the number? The difficult thinking comes with mod 20. You can’t use 2 as a multiplier, because it’s a factor of 26. 3 is ok, because it isn’t. And so forth

BNA: What fiction about crypto, what literature do you admire and enjoy? Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon is often delightful.

SS: Doyle’s “The Adventure of the Dancing Men”, Poe’s “The Gold-bug”. Robert Harris’ historical novel Enigma (also a film).

What are you working on now?

SS: Different ways of getting people interested in science. For instance, in Australia, you’ve got Science in the Pub – two scientists argue about science in the bar, then others join in. In Britain, we have something more genteel, the Café Scientifique. I did a session of the latter, recently, in a café in Oxford, on cryptography. This is often less about mathematical arcane, and more about people saying, “Is my credit card safe online?” It’s much more of a discursive environment.

Bryan Alexander is an Assistant Professor of English at Centenary College of Louisiana, where he teaches computer-mediated classes on the Gothic literature, cyberculture, eighteenth century literature, critical theory, and the experience of war. Through classes on topics ranging from the Vietnam War to Gothic novels, Bryan has experimented with innovative approaches to distance learning. Along these lines, Bryan consults on computer-mediated writing, interdisciplinary studies, and writing across the curriculum. Committed to exploring computer-mediated pedagogy, he continues to research and write on the critical uses of computers and teaching in terms of interdisciplinary liberal arts and the contemporary development of cyberculture.

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