Probability, cryptography, and naïveté

Probability and cryptography have this in common: really smart people can be confidently wrong about both.

I wrote years ago about how striking it was to see two senior professors arguing over an undergraduate probability exercise. As I commented in that post, “Professors might forget how to do a calculus problem, or make a mistake in a calculation, but you wouldn’t see two professors defending incompatible solutions.”

Not only do smart people often get probability wrong, they can be very confident while doing so. The same applies to cryptography.

I recently learned of a cipher J. E. Littlewood invented that he believed was unbreakable. His idea was essentially a stream cipher, simulating a one-time pad by using a pseudorandom number generator. He assumed that since a one-time pad is secure, his simulacrum of a one-time pad would be secure. But it was not, for reasons explained in this paper.

Littlewood was a brilliant mathematician, but he was naive, and even arrogant, about cryptography. Here’s the opening to the paper in which he explained his method.

The legend that every cipher is breakable is of course absurd, though still widespread among people who should know better. I give a sufficient example …

He seems to be saying “Here’s a little example off the top of my head that shows how easy it is to create an unbreakable cipher.” He was the one who should have known better.

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One thought on “Probability, cryptography, and naïveté

  1. Johnathan Corgan

    For whatever reason, cryptography attracts more than its share of the kind naive arrogance you describe.

    Paraphrasing Bruce Schneier: “Anyone can create a cipher that they themselves can’t break.”

    The best cryptographers are the ones humble enough to subject their proposals to the often brutal scrutiny of the community.

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