Codebreakers chapter 5: The Era of the Black Chambers

The 1700-1800s are an odd time for cryptography.

On one had you have various governments setting up the oh so ominous “Black Chambers”. This is the fancy name for the group of people in charge of opening up incoming and outgoing letters and attempting to decipher any enciphered contents. France, England, Austria, and even the US to some extent — they all had some version of this. Austria’s has the coolest name: the “Geheime Kabinets-Kanzelei”. These Black Chambers employed smart people whose only purpose in life was breaking the ciphers of other countries. A surprising amount of history is caused by the work of these groups.

On the other hand you have the general public that is completely ignorant of how far cryptology has progressed. The author produces a quote from Voltaire saying that “those who boast of deciphering a letter without being instructed in the affairs of which it treats […] are greater charlatans than those who boast of understanding a language which they have not even studied”. Interestingly enough, in the same paragraph Voltaire indicates that he knows of and disdains the practice of countries opening up letters in the mail as they pass through their borders. For some reason, he thinks France does not do it. Lol. France hired its first full-time cryptologist in 1628, Antoine Rossignol. His descendants would keep this tradition of serving the French royalty in keeping its secrets and unearthing other peoples’ secrets well into the 1800s.

So why this very pronounced chasm between the what The State is able to do and what The Public thinks is even possible? This chasm is still present now — we have no idea what the NSA or other government security agencies are capable of. They could be tracking with the industry, lagging behind (unlikely) or vastly ahead. I’d put a good dollar down on the latter. Is this the way?

I have no answers (yet), but I offer two ideas. One is the way investigative journalist Annie Jacobsen thinks about these issues. It is not about whether it is right or wrong, but is it necessary? Life is rarely black and white, and I imagine this becomes more apparent when in power. The second idea is from Eisenhower’s farewell speech. “Only an alert and knowledgable citizenry, can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defence with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together”.

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