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Review: Crypto by Steven Levy

By johnsel in Technology
Wed Feb 14, 2001 at 02:31:41 PM EST
Tags: Books (all tags)

Levy is true to form with his latest effort. The long awaited and much anticipated Crypto is a tour through the past thirty years of public sector cryptography research and how these developments toppled the government monopoly on cyptographic techniques and talent.

Title: Crypto: How the Code Rebels Beat the Government Saving Privacy in the Digital Age
Author: Steven Levy
Publisher: Viking
Pages: 356
Rating: 9

It's almost unimaginable to think that the new economy would have come as far as it has without the ability to securely transmit information between buyers and sellers. The ubiquity of encryption technology employed by everything from bank machines to e-tailers is now taken for granted with most people failing to realize the profound impact that this component of the digital world has had on the Information Age.

Illumination of this point is the task of Steven Levy's most recent book, Crypto. The renowned author of Hackers and Insanely Great remains true to form transforming a obscure, dry and complex subject into an addictive page-turning thriller. He takes us from the hippie culture of academic math research in the 70's, through the dark underworld of government intelligence, into the development of the modern information age. Each step emphasizes the central conflict of the story: American national security vs. the right to individual privacy.

While this conflict has largely been resolved, the story contains important lessons that can be applied to the contemporary struggles over technologies like DeCSS and peer-to-peer media 'sharing'. Levy doesn't make any such connections in the book, but it is impossible to read Crypto without seeing how history is repeating itself in these other areas. This makes Crypto and important book to read. Everyone from the RIAA to 2600 subscribers can learn a lot from this well organized retelling of the past 30 years of crypto history. There's a certain futility involved in trying to put the genie of progress back in a bottle. There's also a case to be made for the management of progress so that it is used with the greatest benefit and smallest detriment to all. Perhaps the most remarkable revelation in the book is how the adversarial nature of 'the geeks' vs. 'the spooks' allowed for the maturation of a sensitive technology in a safe and thoughtful manner.

Anyone who has read Wired or Newsweek over the past 5 years will have read excerpts from Crypto. Levy spent a massive amount of time researching this book, which makes sense considering the story he is telling is one that was developing during his period of research. Many of the events he recounts are ones he covered as a journalist at the time that they happened. Some time spent in the Wired archives shows the extent to which he has been one of the journalists closest to the crypto revolution since the release of PGP and the popularization of the Internet.

The book begins with the story of Whit Diffie and his wild ambition to simply learn more about the black art of electronic cryptography. In the early 70's the government monopoly on information relating to this field is hard to imagine. Coming from the mindset of the Open Source community, Levy's tale of early crypto research climate describes a cathedral that makes Microsoft look like the Debian project. The resulting story, therefore, highlights the magnificence of the public key breakthrough, the boldness of the RSA discovery and the daring of Phil Zimmerman's PGP.

If you're looking for a history of Cryptography, get The Code Book by Simon Singh, or Codebreakers by David Kahn. Crypto is a contained story dealing exclusively with the American Cryptographic Experience from Diffie-Hellman, through RSA, and PGP. It is effectively a collection of short, intertwined biographies of the saviors of privacy: Diffie, Hellman, Merkle, Rivest, Shamir, Adleman, Bidzos, Zimmerman, Chaum and others. This is not to say that Levy ignores the math; on the contrary, his explanation of the magnitude of the public key concept hits home even harder than the impressive work by Simon Singh. The book is for both novices and Cypherpunks alike.

The Loner
The Standard
Public Key
Prime Time
Selling Crypto
Patents and Keys
Crypto Anarchy
The Clipper Chip
Slouching Toward Crypto
Epilogue: The Open Secret


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Related Links
o Steven Levy
o Wired
o Newsweek
o Wired archives
o Also by johnsel

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