Kerckhoff in love

I first came across Kerckhoff’s principle whilst doing some research for Hitler, My Hero. It’s a principle applicable to cryptography and it states that “a cryptosystem should be secure even if everything about the system, except the key, is public knowledge.”

In practical terms, this means the orgs behind password managers like LastPass, 1Password, Bitwarden and Keeper can broadcast their use of AES 256 and PBKDF2 encryption standards without compromising the products that rely upon them. These standards are robust and unless a malicious actor has the keys/passwords/authentications associated with an account they should not get in.

A more accessible illustration of the principle in play comes from the Harry Potter universe. Consider the Fidelius Charm. As described by Filius Flitwick:

“An immensely complex spell involving the magical concealment of a secret inside a single, living soul. The information is hidden inside the chosen person, or Secret-Keeper, and is henceforth impossible to find — unless, of course, the Secret-Keeper chooses to divulge it. As long as the Secret-Keeper refused to speak, You-Know-Who could search the village where Lily and James were staying for years and never find them, not even if he had his nose pressed against their sitting room window!”

The Secret Keeper is the key in a magical cryptosystem! This isn’t all, though. The Kerckhoff principle has other associations…

I recently listened to one and a half of Venkatesh Rao’s two recent podcast appearances: the first with Colin Morris, the second with Russ Roberts. The second concerned the idea of waldenponding. During the talk the concept of “FOBO” came up: “fear of being ordinary”. Rao and Roberts discuss FOBO in relation to the notion of taking credit (or having it taken away from oneself). Concurrently, I began to think about differentiation in a competitive market.

I’ll use book publishing as an example. Imagine two authors writing separate books about the same subject, but operating on a similar timescale. This happens often enough and typically it results in all sorts of tactical manoeurvring–“leaking” of release dates, red herrings about narrative angles and framing, attempts to reveal or undercut sources and so on. Previously, I’d accepted the necessity of such actions. But after thinking more about Kerckhoff’s principle I no longer do.

Authorship of a book is, at its simplest, a process with a definitive outcome. However, books are written by people and no two people are the same, nor are the circumstances amidst which the books are written. Two people accessing the same sources, thinking the same thoughts, attempting the same techniques under the same constraints will still produce two different artifacts. Venkatesh talked about second acts and becoming a key: in another sense, every person is a secret key that can be applied to a process to yield a unique outcome.

At this point, I think it’s clear I’m stretching a bit far with my generalisation of Kerckhoff’s principle. Don’t worry, though, I have another up my sleeve and it concerns the object of every worthy poet’s regard: love.

I’ve written before about the impossibility of self-knowledge. Well, perhaps love is the yielding of one’s secret key to another? However, such a key is valid for one use only and must be continously renewed if access is to be retained. This is perhaps why Latour argues that relationships must be constantly performed–keys must continue to be swapped.

Framed another way, it is also possible to suggest that the self is the most secure cryptographic system of them all. No matter how much we try, we can never truly decrypt the self. Absolute comfort is not enough, for the soft vices and virtues we display conceal their harder counterparts. Absolute adversity isn’t enough either, for the reverse reason. Even if a moment came around which enabled the decryption, it would be just that: a moment, here and then gone, invalidated instantaneously.

Walpole said that “The world is a comedy to those that think: a tragedy to those that feel.” I don’t know whether to laugh or cry at the following fact: All the time in the world is not enough to fully reveal us.