Security: What Was Old is New Again

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Craig S Wright



Many people think we are going through fundamental changes to human society right now and in some ways this is correct, it is also flawed.

Even shortened texting is nothing new.

Early IT equipment

Figure: My Grandfather’s first IT equipment

What many people do not see is how the same arguments replay themselves over and over throughout time. The image is of my grandfather’s Morse key from the 30’s.

He gave me this a long time ago now when I was starting in Information Technology (a little over two decades ago). He was trained to become one of the first Marconi school of Wireless graduates.

Even then, security was a major issue. The interception of messages from both commerce and the military lead to the development of one time pads and detailed code books.

My grandfather worked on thermionic valve based radio systems and early spark-gap transmitters.

These allowed ship to shore transmissions and long distance communication at what seemed an impossible distance. This process changed time as we know it, literally. It used to be that noon was the point when the sun was at its zenith, but now, it had become standardized through the telegraph.

My great grandfather’s generation made the exact same cries of despair as we hear about our current generation.

They said that this next music (and the flappers writhing to it) would corrupt the morals of the children.

They also complained of texting. Now, it is IM and SMS, but one hundred years ago, my grandfather texted. He may have used a spark-gap wireless set, but he texted none the less and not only that, he took messages for other people. It was not as simple as it is now, not all people could access their own system, but they could pay another for the privilege.

My Pop spoke Italian well, so well that he was able to study under Guglielmo Marconi for a short time. So he was in the thick of the information revolution of a century ago. That however is a different story.

What this is about is how things remain the same although we try to disparage the differences and state that we are at a point in time unlike any other.

In the 1920’s and 1930’s, texting was rife much to the consternation of many parents at the time.

Long distance relationships were common and even living 100 Km apart was long distance with trips taking an entire day each way in some places. To account for this separation, many young lovers sent one another letters, but more, in place of the email of today represented by their letters, they also texted.

They did this using wireless telephony.

The cost of sending a text then was more than now, up to 50cents a word. We think text is costly, but this was 50c when people did not earn a good deal. For the most part it was less and if you sent at off times, it was cheaper, but it was costly none the less. They would pay by the letter and each character was expensive.

As a result, people shortened their messages. They encoded what they would say and just as now, a form of text language evolved. The Government-operated telegraph networks operated from the local post offices, generally located close to most people. So texting was common and frequent, but then as now, people thought it would lead to moral decay and a collapse of society.

Young lovers sent messages and they engaged in texting over a century ago.

More than this, businesses started to understand the need for secrecy and they always understood costs. A small encoded message was far safer and far less expensive to send then a verbose letter.

Just as we encode signals now for security and economy (saving bandwidth), people did the same 100 years ago. The wireless telegraph in particular made this an essential aspect of communications.

Just as we now worry about hackers intercepting our emails and passwords over wireless networks, people worried about the interception and alteration of messages sent using the wireless telegraph.

This was in fact an issue. One that was large enough for people to produce commercially books containing solely tables of random numbers and volumes of one time pads. Code structures that even now are computationally infeasible to crack without the key.

The same arguments that I used to discuss with my grandfather before his death concerning security from his day are the same we hear now. We talk still of systems as if they must by nature be absolutely secure and forget this only relative security exists.

We still forget that encryption is only a matter of time. All that ever matters is ensuring that a message is protected for a time when the contents are sensitive, not for all time.

So, when all is said and done, we have not really changed much as a species. We love to believe that we as a generation are forging something new and facing problems that no other has faced before, but in reality, the analogy remains as it is always likely to remain.

Change is the only constant.

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