In the world of Star Wars, as in our own world, information is power.
Yet, Star Wars was created in the pre-internet age. Throughout the Star Wars canon, you’ll find instances where information is protected physically because no overarching information network had been thought of yet in our reality.
Other times, as in Rogue One, information is protected physically because to connect it to a network would be irresponsible.
From this, we find that in our contemporary Earth-human reality, we must use both advanced mathematical systems like computers and the Internet as well as physical protection systems in order to build cryptography systems that can stand the test of our time.
Despite the fact that Star Wars was born pre-internet, information is the main currency in the Star Wars universe. Information surrounding the Force, specifically, plays an integral role in the lives of the Skywalkers. The security of important information, just like in our time and space, seems to be a tenuous situation in that galaxy far, far away.
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this article contains spoilers for the ENTIRE Star Wars series. You’ve been warned.
How Information Works as a Currency and Motivator in Star Wars
The story of Star Wars is a story of information. Knowledge of how the Force works or how it even exists influences many characters and even whole galactic governments. Take, for instance, The Rebels stealing the real Death Star plans which R2-D2 then carried secretly. This mirrors the Episode VII misdirection ploy that sets the Rebels up for their crucial ambush.
Information even spurs Anakin’s descent into the Dark Side. Senator Palpatine feeds Anakin the tale of Plagueis the Wise (in which he leaves out the fact that HE killed Darth Plagueis). More important than this narrative, however, is the information kept from Anakin and other students by the Jedi.
Beyond the deception and games between individuals, technology in the Star Wars universe seems fundamentally insecure regarding information. There just doesn’t appear to be sufficient mathematical protection (read: cryptography). It appears that the only protection is physical distance and separation. You see this in action with both droids R2-D2 and BB-8.
We could soon find ourselves in similar quagmires as quantum computing and brute-force hacking advance. Even the most complex, mathematical puzzles previously thought near-impossible to crack could be compromised in any reasonable timespan as future quantum computers will be able to do thousands of years worth of computations in minutes. For now, the development of quantum key distribution hasn’t reached that clip.
If you want to know more about that, read here.
How Does an Evolved Society hit a Point Where Information Security Becomes a Bell Curve?
Here’s where we get to the point where the state-of-the-art digital portion peaks and it ironically forces us to go back to where the physical possession of information IS security.
You can see this now with companies such as Iron Mountain. Just taking a look at the navigation toolbar offers immense insight: digital transformation, secure storage, secure destruction . . . It highlights the zenith of modern cryptography: protecting assets behind many virtual locks with many keys.
But that’s not all. Iron Mountain also has its “Room 48” which is a database built into the side of a mountain. This former limestone mine regulates temperature for the database hardware, but it is also more physically secure than a normal database.
This, of course, ultimately makes the information less accessible even by those who might need it. We see this in government systems that cannot be connected to the general Internet. Anyone else re-learning what “intranets” are this year? It seems like many systems in Star Wars might utilize them in an effort to prevent hacking.
In the case of Rogue One, the First Order shielded an ENTIRE planet solely to protect Scarif. Even the filmmakers say that this shield is a “key part of the Imperial security complex”. If it had been networked, it would have been hacked. There needed to have been some kind of internal, more analog system at work.
So, the real question is: in our future (Star Wars being a “long, long time ago”), how do we employ encryption in an insecure world? We combine mathematical and physical attributes such that possession of a key adds better access to securely networked information. Data storage, which is also questionable in the Star Wars universe, could also play a part.
Does Cryptography Suck or Is Physical Location the Best Encryption?
In Star Wars, there are repeated incidences of seemingly minor robots accessing wide swaths of information. At no point is there a material barrier to the gathering of information other than physical location. This begs the obvious question: what is the state of encryption in the Star Wars universe?
One thing to consider is the pre-internet time period in which story was written. As I recently discovered, authors played with internet-like concepts as early as 1898. But it is never elucidated what the systems in the Star Wars universe actually ARE in the original trilogy.
In the extended Star Wars universe (including the various books and games), there are instances of “Slicers”, or hackers, who are able to gain access to extremely secure and sensitive information.
However, there are no demonstrably secure systems in the canon of Star Wars, which does not necessarily include the extended universe. The few glimpses we glean from the films include planetary shielding which, as we said, must not be connected to a global or remotely accessible network.
Hacking is easy as long as you can plug in the local area network. So easy, in fact, that information doesn’t even seem to be encrypted at times. Consider the moment when Mon Mothma is about to share top secret info. It just plays! No *hacker voice* “I’m in” or any other ceremony we might be used to in our own space and time.
However, it was at this fateful moment wherein child Juliet became very sad about Bothans. That, piled on with the complete obliteration of Alderaan from A New Hope really gave child Juliet a fair amount of cognitive dissonance about power dynamics.
Blast from the Past as we Look Into the Future
Physical location plays a key role in security breaches throughout the Star Wars universe.
- Episode IV/A New Hope: R2-D2 hacks the Death Star. He manages to do things like:
– find the location of a high-security prisoner
– alter core waste management functions for the station
- Episode V/The Empire Strikes Back: R2-D2 hacks Cloud City
- Episode IV/Return of the Jedi: R2-D2 begins to hack door on 4th moon of Endor but is shot before he can finish which shows physical risk and nature of information propagation without a central network/information storage
- Rogue One: No attempt to secure the information except hiding it with a physical shield
- Episode VII/The Force Awakens: in order to find out where Luke is, they need the other physical piece of map which, if it were stored on a network or cloud-based network, would have been hacked a long time ago
You cannot have networked systems if everything is crackable. You must physically store and protect your information. This stands in contrast to our own modern methods of cryptography. Companies have it easy these days: just throw everything up on AWS and run the business as usual.
But, computing power and the value of information will increase. Conversely, the ability to protect information purely mathematically will decrease. So it becomes necessary to protect data physically as well as mathematically.
Ways Analog Cryptography Can Enhance Future Cryptography
Keeping information offline is one of the major tenets of analog cryptography, as we see in Star Wars. This separation creates a new physical relationship between security and information. From there, we could employ familiar devices from civilizations past.
We must re-examine the fundamental control of network endpoints (access points) as we are decreasingly able to rely on distributed information networks. What becomes another encryption option for offline information? Ciphers and physical barriers to reality as cryptography.
The Greeks (specifically the Spartans) utilized what is known as a Scytale. This form of cryptography involves wrapping parchment around a rod of a particular diameter to reveal a message. This kind of cipher is easily broken but is also very quick to decode and hard to mistake.
If we take a page out of American history, utilizing a previously unknown language such as the Navajo Code Talkers from World War II. Their bravery and the language of the Navajo people was integral to winning the war.
Ultimately, the Republic vs. the First Order/Empire cryptography shows us that distributed systems are messy. While top-down systems can do better, they become brittle once the top command structure has been eliminated.