Linking Mathematics and Social Issues

Current social, political, and legal problems related to crypto

The Web is a wonderful and monstrous construct. The social, political, and legal problems related to this course (which I'll label more briefly here as "social problems") typically have enormous numbers of links available for exploration. For example, today (7/18/2004) Google reports over 335 million links in response to the query, copyright. Students and instructors both have huge jobs trying to locate useful information, especially about controversies which develop rapidly. Each time I gave this course, I thought carefully about the social topics I wanted to investigate. I looked for appropriate links (and texts, of course!). I found that 6 months later, if I wished to pursue the same topics, almost a quarter of the links I gathered no longer existed or were off-topic (perhaps a form of what's called link rot). More positively I can report that students found and submitted interesting and relevant links on virtually every social problem discussed in the course.

One book I recommend for the social problems related to classical crypto is Privacy on the Line: The Politics of Wiretapping and Encryption by Whitfield Diffie and Susan Landau, 352 pp paperback, MIT Press, 1998, $22. Several recent books by Lawrence Lessig are interesting and relevant. The quote in the SENCER abstract for this course is from Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace by Lawrence Lessig, 297 pp paperback, Basic Books, 2000, $12.

What capacious civic questions or problems are addressed in the course?

Some social issues have special resonance in a technical society. A few of these issues are listed and briefly discussed below. The beginning of an intellectual and physical infrastructure which may cope with such issues has only occurred within the last 20 years. New results in mathematics and theoretical computer science are at the heart of these developments.

Students and all participants in our digital society should know what is possible, even as they help to decide what the aims of laws and practices should be.

  • Security and privacy of email

Governments assert that widespread use of secure cryptographic communication would be a great hindrance to capturing terrorists, criminals including drug traffickers, and spies. At the same time, "open" email can typically be read by dozens or hundreds of people involved in the storage and transmission of the messages. Can there be a suitable compromise to the varying desires of stakeholders?

  • Confidentiality of medical records

Certain laws and practices essentially open many medical records to police inspection and outside auditing. The stated reasons for these policies are to decrease fraudulent billing and to simplify the transactions of participants. But there exist ways of securing privacy and "sharing" information access which can be implemented with little overhead.

  • Privacy of cell phones

Evidence has been presented that cell phones broadcasts, which carry an increasing portion of electronic conversations, are easily intercepted and quite insecure. Should users be permitted to specify levels of security and privacy? Should such choices be well-known?

  • Trust and electronic commerce

What are the intellectual constructs which make it possible for a customer in Omaha to buy books from Amazon? The two participants must exchange information such as credit card numbers and book titles which both may prefer to keep confidential. In earlier times, a buyer and seller might meet privately to satisfy such confidentiality desires. In cyberspace, no prearrangements have been made, and only information can be exchanged. Why should the methods currently used be trusted?

  • Intellectual property in a digital age

The term "intellectual property" can refer to ideas protected by copyright, patent, trademark, or trade secret. The Digital Dilemma, a publication of the National Academy of Sciences, states, "...A printed book can be accessed by one or perhaps two people at once, people who must, of course, be in the same place as the book. But make that same text available in electronic form, and there is almost no technological limit to the number of people who can access it simultaneously, ... For publishers and authors, the question is, How many copies of the work will be sold (or licensed) if networks make possible planet-wide access? Their nightmare is that the number is one. ..."

Even without what could be hyperbole, we all recognize that musicians have traditionally received only a small percentage of the revenue from the final sale of a record or a compact disc or DVD. With the Web, such items could be sold directly, at a lower price and possibly yielding more revenue to the performers. Should these changes be controlled for the benefit of previous profiteers? What technological controls are possible and/or desirable?

  • Timestamping without revealing

How can one timestamp a document? For example, two parties may enter into a congtract whose details they may prefer to keep private, but whose execution may reasonably be foreseen to involve the possibility of disagreement or even litigation. Techniques related to crypography provide an opportunity to record the document publicly in a condensed and secret fashion, with a very high likelihood that neither party can later deny the agreement or its details. These techniques are now in use. Interestingly, early excavations in what was Mesopotamia reveal that such problems were recognized even then, and solutions with then-current "technology" were attempted.

  • Auctions: secret bids in the open

Suppose parties must submit a bid to an auction by a desired date, and the transactions may be vulnerable to a corrupt official, who may open a sealed bid to disclose information to competitors. Real cryptographic procedures can make detection of such cheating very likely.

  • Digital cash

The money in your pocket is difficult to trace. As the world moves to a digital economy, bank transfers may become easier to trace resulting in a decrease of the privacy of financial transactions. Can anonymous forms of digital cash be created? What are the desired properties and problems of such cash?

  • Electronic voting

This topic was not discussed in the original course, but most of the ideas and protocols mentioned then apply to the questions of electronic voting. Many cryptographers are currently investigating how to guarantee the accuracy, integrity, and security of electronic voting.