Adam Wiggins's Reviews > The Code Book: The Science of Secrecy from Ancient Egypt to Quantum Cryptography

The Code Book by Simon Singh
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Mar 17, 2012

it was amazing
bookshelves: computing
Read from March 17 to April 07, 2012

Political assassination plots, romantic liaisons, military secrets, and buried treasure are just a few of the themes wrapped up in the history of cryptography.

This book makes an dry and highly technical subject extremely accessible. First, by telling these stories from history -- ranging from the assassination plot by Mary, Queen of Scots against Queen Elizabeth of England in 1586 up through the political martyrdom of Phil Zimmerman for the invention of PGP encryption, which brought computerized encryption to the masses and ushered in the era of secure online commerce. And second, by providing plainly-written step-by-step descriptions of the functioning of each cipher and the technique that can be used to break it. It should be noted I have a professional background in software cryptography, but I still think these descriptions would be understandable to a lay audience.

For example, a monoalphabetic substitution cipher (what I call "secret decoder ring cryptography") was the world's gold standard for encryption for thousands of years -- until Arab mathematicians invented frequency analysis in the 9th century AD, almost completely nullifying the value of that cipher.

Thus began the arms race between cryptographers (aka codemakers) and cryptanalysts (aka codebreakers), a multi-eon game of cat and mouse between thousands of the world's mathematical and linguistic geniuses. This war is fought almost completely behind closed doors because of the massive military value of secure communications, so most of these individuals didn't get recognition for their work until after their death.

One of the most tragic cases is Alan Turing, who broke the Enigma cipher during World War II, and in the process invented the modern computer ("Turing machine"). Despite having almost single-handedly defeated the Nazis and creating the technology that would usher in the Information age for mankind, his work was considered military secrets and known only to a few. He was outed as a homosexual in his middle years, resulting in criminal prosecution and chemically castrated by the government. He committed suicide a few years later.

The book also takes a chapter to dive into a related topic: deciphering ancient written languages. While not cryptography, similar sleuthing techniques can be applied to try to read written texts in languages that have been lost to humanity's collective knowledge. The book details the deciphering of Egyptian hieroglyphs (made somewhat trivial by the discovery of the Rosetta Stone, the ultimate crib), and Linear B (a script used in the kingdom of Minos, the place where the labyrinth/Minotaur legend originates). Linear A remains undeciphered and continues to enthrall the minds of linguists and codebreakers to this day.

The book was written in 2000 and concludes by talking about the battles between civil libertarians (who wished to make encryption freely available for all) and governments (who wish to control encryption as a weapon of war). This is instructive in and of itself -- just in the twelve short years since that time, this issue has been completely resolved. The civil libertarians won, and as a result we have a thriving online economy made possible by asymmetric key cryptography.
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