Saturday, November 17, 2007

Crypto: How the Code Rebels Beat the Government, Saving Privacy in the Digital Age, by Steven Levy

Crypto: How the Code Rebels Beat the Government, Saving Privacy in the Digital Age, by Steven Levy

This book is part corporate history and part biography, describing how a group of mathematicians created the cryptography that allows us to safely buy books from and porn from, um, never mind. :) Thirty years ago nobody had ever heard of the NSA, the government agency responsible for decoding foreign communications, and they liked it that way. They quietly classified as much cryptological research as possible and kept the science in a backwater of mathematics. The growing distrust of the government in the late sixties coupled with the ascendancy of computers caused this to change, although not without a fight. This is the story of that fight.

I’m familiar with the Diffie-Hellman and RSA algorithms and remember the fiasco surrounding the Clipper chip, but didn’t know much of the background of these stories. Levy details the both discoveries of the public key infrastructure and the innovators themselves as well as the eventual showdowns with the government. While clearly slanted against the NSA (whom led the battle against public cryptography) Levy does a fairly good job of showing all sides of the problem. For instance, he discusses the national security ramifications of not being able to intercept covert messages and some of the huge cases that were broken due to our code-breaking ability. He also talks about the weaknesses of the algorithms we use today and describes some of the more successful attempts at breaking them. The epilogue was the most surprising to me; apparently a couple of spooks in Britain discovered PGP before we did, but kept it classified until just recently. I found this a very interesting read and recommend it to anyone wanting to understand more about the history of encryption on the Internet.

First Sentence:
Mary Fischer loathed Whitfield Diffie on sight.

No comments:

Search This Blog