Eric_W'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 20, 11

bookshelves: current-affairs, spies
Read in January, 2000

Singh, author of Fermat's Enigma, has even included a code to practice one's deciphering skills on. The successful cryptanalyst will win $15,000. In the appendix, he discusses other famous attempts at breaking codes, including the recent book, The Bible Code, by Michael Drosnin. This work caused quite a stir a couple of years ago when Drosnin, building really on the work of several Hebrew scholars, claimed to have discovered several prophecies hidden in the text of the Bible, a forecast of the assassination of the Kennedys and of Anwar Sadat. The Biblical code was an EDLS (equidistant letter sequence) code, where you take any text, pick a particular starting letter and jump ahead a given number of letters to spell out a sentence.

As critics have pointed out, any large text will produce all sorts of things. Brendan McKay at the Australian National University used Drosnin's technique to search Moby Dick and discovered similar predictions of assassinations that have occurred. Hebrew texts, Singh notes, are particularly rich in EDLSs because Hebrew has no vowels, which means interpreters can insert vowels as they see fit. Codes are constantly evolving; as code breakers break them, new ones must be developed. The supposed one-time pads, as in the Cryptonomicon, even had weaknesses — for example, if used more than once or from patterns inadvertently created by typists, patterns being the entry into most ciphers. Cryptanalysis, or the process of code breaking, was really invented by Islamic scholars in the 19th century. Substitution ciphers, where another alphabet is substituted for the original, were believed to be unbreakable; there were so many possible combinations of 26 letters that it would take billions of years to test all of them.

The Islamic scholars, while analyzing the Koran, discovered that the frequency of letters was not the same. In English, for example, the letter 'e' appears much more frequently than 'z' By analysis of letter frequency and knowing the language of the cipher, deciphering became quite simple. Blaise de Vigeniere solved this weakness by inventing the Vigeniere square, which provided multiple cipher alphabets using keywords to link letters with particular alphabets, a polyalphabetic cipher. The beauty of his scheme was that the letter “e” might be represented by several other letters, so frequency became irrelevant C or so everyone thought. To decipher the code, all one needed was the keyword, easy to remember, and not necessary to write down anywhere. Deciphering was a tedious process, however, and his impregnable ciphering system was not widely used. The Great Cipher was created by a father and son team working for Louis XIV. Their system was to use a combination of various types of ciphers. Unfortunately, they died without recording how their cipher worked, and many documents in French archives remained completely unreadable until the late 19th century when a French cryptanalyst spent several years painstakingly applying his knowledge of ciphers to the problem. Several of the documents thus finally deciphered revealed the identity of the Man in the Iron Mask.

Charles Babbage, inventor of the modern calculator and computer, was the one who broke Vigeniere's polyalphabetic system, by using statistics to create an algorithm that helped reveal the keyword. The problem in the twentieth century has not been the development of undecipherable ciphers. The computer makes encoding very easy and quite unbreakable. But each ciphered message can only be deciphered using a key. The recipient has to know the key. Banks would hire messengers to deliver keys to encrypted messages that needed to be sent from one bank to another. That proved to be a bureaucratic nightmare, and as the Internet created a need for encrypted messages between individuals and online stores or other persons, the deliverer of the key became very important. Martin Hellman, Ralph Merkle, and Whitfield Diffie decided the problem was not insoluble. As Hellman said, “God rewards fools.”

Only a fool would be willing to work on a problem for which the experts had said there was no solution, and to be willing to keep getting excited by an idea only to have it flop, then try another. Their solution was unique. They eliminated the need for key exchange. Just how they did this is marvelous in its simplicity, but if I told you you wouldn't need to read the book, which is what I heartily recommend. PQP, the cipher made public so that anyone could use it, made the government nervous and civil libertarians and others in favor of privacy leap for joy. Now anyone could encrypt a message with total security. We hear constantly about the worry that the NSA, CIA, and others in government have about the easy ability of ordinary people to have a level of encryption that is indecipherable. But, of course, it=s in their interest to make everyone think they have an indecipherable message, so my guess is that those agencies already know how to break the unbreakable codes but just don't want anyone to know they can.
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Pam (E.P. Scott) Very good review. As a young girl/woman, I enjoyed cryptograms (you know the puzzles in the Dell puzzle books that had the letters all jumbled and you had to figure out the key to solve the puzzle?) Loved them!

Unfortunately I don't do them anymore...and that was a total sidebar.

I'm glad I came on this review. While I may not sit down and read this in one sitting, since I did enjoy those fun puzzles, I am going to add this to my TBR list ... just in case.

:)


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