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Crypto: How the Code Rebels Beat the Government—Saving Privacy in the Digital Age

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If you've ever made a secure purchase with your credit card over the Internet, then you have seen cryptography, or "crypto", in action. From Stephen Levy—the author who made "hackers" a household word—comes this account of a revolution that is already affecting every citizen in the twenty-first century. Crypto tells the inside story of how a group of "crypto rebels"—nerds and visionaries turned freedom fighters—teamed up with corporate interests to beat Big Brother and ensure our privacy on the Internet. Levy's history of one of the most controversial and important topics of the digital age reads like the best futuristic fiction.

368 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 2001

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About the author

Steven Levy

42 books627 followers
Steven Levy is editor at large at Wired, and author of eight books, including the new Facebook: the Inside Story, the definitive history of that controversial company. His previous works include the legendary computer history Hackers, Artificial Life, the Unicorn 's Secret, In the Plex (the story of Google, chose as Amazon and Audible's best business book of 2011), and Crypto, which won the Frankfurt E-book Award for the best non-fiction book of 2001. He was previously the chief technology correspondent for Newsweek. He lives in New York City.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 120 reviews
Profile Image for Ed Limonov.
13 reviews
September 21, 2019
Reading this book was a slight deception, not because of the content, but mainly because it's a bit messy. The chapters don't correlate with each other very well and the content is not as well orgnaized as I was expecting. Aside from that, I bleieve I LEARNED something new.
Profile Image for Eric_W.
1,920 reviews354 followers
March 6, 2010
This book is about the battle for privacy: a battle that pitted nobodies against the world's most powerful people and governments. The nobodies won. Governments have always had a substantial stake in restricting access to information, often for very good reasons, but individuals need to protect their personal information also. The computer provided the means for incredibly powerful cryptographic tools, and those in power wanted to keep those tools to themselves. Whitfield Diffie was a contrarian. A genius, he didn't decide to learn to read until he was ten years old because he so enjoyed having his parents read to him. Once he decided to learn, he read everything, and he was particularly drawn to books about cryptography, the science of encoding information.

Interestingly, he was less interested in cryptanalysis and decoding. For a while he lost interest, thinking all the interesting work had already been done. After working at MIT, he moved on to indulge his passion for mathematics and computer programming and eventually artificial intelligence. While his hacker friends were indulging themselves breaking into other computers to see if it could be done, Diffie worked on software to prevent such intrusions. Then he read David Kahn's classic The Codebreakers that revealed how much secret work was being done by the NSA (formerly known as No Such Agency). He realized an enormous amount of work was being done behind closed doors, and that offended his sense of propriety since privacy for individuals was important too. Encryption had become essential with the advent of the Internet.. Digital signatures, for example could be easily copied, as could digital documents, so how could they be made secure without slowing down transactions? In 1977, three MIT professors who had been intrigued by Diffie's work discovered the mechanism that would strike terror in the hearts of cryptanalysts (those who break codes). Using factoring of prime numbers as the focal point, they realized that a 129-digit product of two prime numbers would require millions of years to break by brute strength (computer analysis of all the possibilities), but that anyone who had a private key of one of the prime numbers could easily decode the message. Thus the key that performed the encryption could be made public -- indeed, the wider the dissemination the better. For a better explanation read the book. We’re pushing my envelope here.

The National Security Agency, better known as the NSA, an agency that in its early years did not even admit to its own existence, began a campaign to thwart the work of the mathematicians. Even after the Justice Department had ruled that the ITAR regulations (these prevented dissemination of even published papers) were unconstitutional, the agency was trying to use them to scare anyone working on novel forms of cryptography. In other words, in spite of their having sworn allegiance to the Constitution, the agency and its employees were operating in a manner that the legal arm of the government had said was clearly unconstitutional. Shades of Oliver North, who always thought he could be the sole interpreter of the Constitution.

The epitome of the governmental role in trying to thwart the proverbial horse from escaping the barn was the Clipper chip. This hardware device was designed to be placed in every device that might conceivably be used for communications, from computers to telephones. Initially proposed by the NSA with the concurrence of the FBI and National Institutes of Standards, the device would use an escrow key; that is, every time it was used a key would be sent to a government agency theoretically to be stored until such time as the government needed to get at the conversation. Unfortunately, the Clinton administration, techno-freaks though they professed to be, completely misread the mood of the country. After all, would you leave a key to your house at the police station so they could get in any time they wanted? The reaction from foreign countries was astonishment. They were supposed to give the U.S. government access to private business conversations, etc.? The hubris of it all.

The crowning blow, despite polls that showed 80% of the country being opposed to the Clipper chip, was when a consultant hired by the NSA to test the chip showed it could be broken. It took him 42 minutes after realizing that the checksum used to verify the key being sent to law enforcement was only sixteen bits and could be computationally broken by a home PC. That made it the subject of ridicule and it was doomed. Levy’s book is a real page-turner and a classic analysis of how of technology outpaces policy.

Profile Image for Sajjad thaier.
204 reviews103 followers
October 29, 2018
تأليف : ستيفن ليفي
ترجمة : عبد الإله الملاح
عدد الصفحات :549
نوع الكتاب : تشفير , أمن المعلومات
التقييم: 5\5

"كل ما في العالم مختزن في شيفرة , وما الطبيعة إلا مجرد شيفرة وكتابة سرية "

الكتاب عبارة عن سيرة تاريخية للسرية في نهاية القرن العشرين . مع الأسف أننا اليوم نعتمد عليها في كل شيء تقريبا لكننا لا نعرف عنها شيء . هل تسائل أحدكم أنه عندما يرسل رسالة إلى أحدهم لنفرض أن أسمه –أحمد – كيف يتأكد أن الرسالة وصلت لأحمد ولم يقم أحد أخر بسرقتها أو أسوء أن يعدل عليها أو يضيف عليها بعض المعلومات .بالتأكيد هذه الأشياء لا تحدث في حياتنا الآن بسبب الأبطال المذكورين في هذا الكتاب .
لكي نفهم المشكلة بشكل بسيط وسريع علينا الرجوع إلى ستينيات وسبعينيات القرن الماضي . ففي هذه الفترة بدأت الحواسيب تنتشر بشكل واسع بين العامة وأصبحت أدوات للعب والتنظيم وغيرها وبمرور الوقت أصبحت أدوات للتواصل وهنا ظهرت المشكلة . أذا أرسلت رسالة لأحمد كيف أعرف أن زيد لا يتنصت عليها . كان الحل هو أن أشفرها بطريقة لا يعلمها ألا أنا وأحمد وبذلك نتراسل براحة –أي أن نتفق على طريقة تشفير لا يفهمها أحد أخر غيرنا – لكن هنا ظهرت المشكلة الحقيقة ماذا أذا لم ألتقي بأحمد من قبل في حياتي كيف سأتواصل معه بشكل أمن بما أنني لا أستطيع الالتقاء به وجه لوجه و الاتفاق على شفرة .

وفي هذه النقطة تبدء رحلة هويت ديفي ومارتين هيلمان في محاولة حل هذه المشكلة .لكن تواجههم الكثير من المشاكل لأن القانون الأمريكي يعتبر التشفير أداة حربية لذلك كيف يمكن التكلم عن شيء مجرد نشر مقالة علمية عنه قد يؤدي بك إلى السجن . أن هذا الكتاب هو قصة كفاح لأجل الحرية لأجل السرية لأجل أن يملك الشخص خصوصية فالتشفير هو صفعة موجعة في وجه الأخ الأكبر أيا كان .

الكتاب ممتع وسلس وأسلوب رائع بعرض تسلسل الأحداث التاريخية وشرح مبسط للمعلومات التقنية . الكتاب تقريبا يعتبر الوحيد من نوعه في هذا المجال المتوفر في اللغة العربية رغم أن هذا المجال -مجال تشفير المعلومات- هو واحد من أكثر الفروع طلبا بالعالم خصوصا مع صعود البيتكوين والنقود الرقمية وغيرها .
Profile Image for Rick Howard.
Author 3 books28 followers
December 31, 2021
**** Recommend it
: Recommended for math geeks who relish a truly astonishing math puzzle.
: Recommended for fans of the Privacy vs Security debate
: Recommend for internet history fans.

The Cybersecurity Canon Committee inducted “Crypto” into the Canon Hall of Fame back in 2017. The author, Steven Levy, describes a turning point in world history, between 1975 and 1996, when math and computer science mavericks made it possible for common people, not governments, to use cryptological tools to encrypt data and prevent unwanted eyes from learning their secrets. People like Whitt Diffie & Martie Helman, Rivest - Shamir - Adleman (of RSA Fame), Phil Zimmermann (of PGP Fame), and many others, made it possible for average internet web surfers to ensure that no eavesdroppers were listening to their conversations or stealing their data.

Before 1975, cryptology was mostly a government interest. Creating codes and breaking codes has been a big part of the espionage game since the very first governments formed. Scholars have uncovered evidence of substitution cyphers used as far back as 600 BC. Hebrew scribes used the ATBASH substitution cypher where the letters of the original text are substituted with a pre-arranged code. Fast forward to the the U.S. Revolutionary War, George Washington was the original American head spy, kind of like “M” in the James Bond movie franchise. He even had a code name, Agent 711, and ran an efficient espionage organization called the Culper Spy Ring where encryption was the norm. In fact, during that time, many government officials used encryption tools for their general correspondence. Thomas Jefferson invented a mechanical tool to help him do it called the Bazeries Cylinder or the Jefferson Disk.

But after the American Revolutionary War, the newly formed country sent its leaders to Philadelphia to write its Constitution. In that famous framing document where the ideals, hopes and dreams of these founding fathers were codified for future generations, three ideas emerged that, in hindsight, were at odds with each other. The first two ideas came out of the Preamble:

"We the People of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

The first bolded phrase, Establish Justice, seems self evident. Of course the government should be able do what it needs to do in order to ensure that Justice is available to every citizen. But in the same paragraph, they write this

"secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity”

The words “Privacy” and “Freedom” are never mentioned in the document but Constitutional scholars have pointed to the above line to mean that American citizens have a right to privacy. And then, in the Bill of Rights’ 4th Amendment, they write this

“The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects against unreasonable searches and seizures shall not be violated.”

These three ideas, the right of the government to seek justice, the right for all citizens to expect privacy, and the right of all citizens to not be subject to unwarranted searches and seizures, cause a push-me-pull-you tension in the Constitution. If you pull on one too hard, the other two might break. But that was not self-evident back then. Governments didn’t have the means to massively collect and break papers encoded by ciphers. But all of that started to change in WWII.

German leadership used an ingenious coding machine, called Enigma, to encrypt battle plans sent to the commanders in the field. The British launched a massive effort at Bletchley Park to break the code. Alan Turing led the effort and if you want to learn more about that effort, read another Cybersecurity Canon Candidate called “Cryptonomicon” or watch “The Imitation Game” where Alan Turing is played by Benedict Cumberbatch. The Bletchley Park gang used another machine, called the Bombe, to break the Enigma codes and probably saved 20 million lives in the process by shortening the war by at least two years. On the American side, the military used 10,000 women to break the Japanese codes.

So you can understand a governments point of view that it would always seek to control encryption technology so that it could send encrypted documents to their own people without fear that their codes would be broken and so that they could break encrypted messages stolen from their enemies. None of this mattered to the normal citizen since most were not sending correspondence in any kind of volume that would warrant this kind of secrecy. That all changed with the emergence of the modern computer age.

Around the mid-1970s, with the Internet just coming online and the first computers becoming available for home use, maverick thinkers started to think about preserving a citizen's right to privacy and unwarranted searches in this new digital age. They began to challenge the notion that encryption technologies should remain totally under government purview and this is where Levy’s book starts.

Here is the problem. Up to this point, encrypting messages between two parties was always dependent on both sides agreeing to a cipher key before any messages were sent. But in the modern age, you may want to send a secret message to somebody you have never met. How do you agree to and share a key with the intended recipient on the internet without an eavesdropper collecting that key also and using it to break the code? The answer is something called Public Key Exchange and it was invented by Whitfield Diffie and Marty Hellman in 1976.

I will not attempt to describe that math here. If you want details on how it works, see the original paper or the Kahn Academy video that explains it. Suffice it to say that for Bob and Alice to exchange keys in public without an eavesdropper learning what it is, they each generate two keys, a private and a public key, and use a one-way function that uses exponential and modulus math to derive a shared secret that only Bob and Alice know. Even though the eavesdroppers have seen the public exchange of information between the two parties, they will not know the private keys of the two parties and will not be able to derive their shared secret; you know, because of “MATH.”

So Diffie and Hellman publish their landmark paper in 1976 describing the theory but they didn’t have a practical implementation yet. We knew in theory how to exchange keys publicly, we just couldn’t do it in the real world and we still needed to actually encrypt the message with this shared secret key with an unbreakable encryption algorithm. Enter Rivest, Shamir, and Adleman of RSA fame. Yes, the famous name of the company and the annual security conference in San Francisco is actually based on the initials of the three scientists that built the first working product of public key encryption. They published their paper in 1978.

Before this time, cryptology tools had been the purview of governments, specifically the NSA after WWII, and the spy agency leaders were not too happy about this development. Their theory was that if cryptology got into the hands of the average citizen, the NSA’s job of cracking codes to steal secrets from their enemies and the FBI’s job of collecting evidence on criminals, would get exponentially harder.

Both agencies put up quite a resistance in order to not allow the spread of this technology. When they lost that fight, the government attempted to weaken the crypto algorithms so much that the encrypted messages would be easy to break. They even proposed, and got President Clinton to approve, a plan to install a hardware chip, called the Clipper Chip, on every manufactured computer. This chip would encrypt data for all citizens but also store keys in escrow that the FBI could use to decrypt information to support investigations. Even though approved by the President, the Clipper Chip never caught on and the initiative died due in no small part with the widespread availability of free encryption software packages, like PGP, that the U.S. government did not control.

Levy’s book walks the reader through this important debate in internet history between the two giant and competing ideas of privacy vs security. In this round, privacy won but the issue is not dead. When the Snowden disclosures became public in 2013 and the world learned that the NSA may not have been as transparent about spying on U.S. citizens as they should have, the debate began again. The government’s argument was that they needed this kind of surveillance power to stop terrorism and other bad guys. The FBI got into a heated legal debate with Apple about decrypting the Sacramento shooter’s iPhone. Apple said building a back door into their devices is akin to the key escrow debate of the last 1990s. Law enforcement said that end-to-end encryption without any recourse was making devices warrant-proof.

The reason that “Crypto” is in the Cybersecurity Canon Hall of Fame, is two fold. First, it walks the reader through this very important debate between privacy and security. Second, it documents the history of modern cryptology.
Profile Image for JC.
1,724 reviews60 followers
July 28, 2012
This was a pretty interesting read about cryptography and its history. It's an in depth look at the creators of the widely used schemes on the internet. I've had a brief overview of public key cryptography in a couple of my CS classes, so I had a good background to understand how the encryption scheme actually works and what's involved. That being said, this book goes even further back and looks at how encryption really became an issue.

By far, the most fascinating part of this book for me was how much the U.S. Government had its hands in the details of cryptography and encryption. They wanted to be able to put back doors in everything, make encryption weak so it's actually very useless since there's always someone with more power and more money to poor into breaking encryption schemes. I can't believe how much they restricted things early on.

Additionally, I really enjoyed reading about public-private key cryptography and how it was such a radical idea. I definitely think it makes sense, but it's so common and used all over the place now, it's crazy to think that just 30 years ago, people were totally baffled by the idea. These mathmeticians are geniuses.

This book is quite technical. While things are explained pretty well, you will likely be confused by a few of the topics. Oh yeah, only goes through to about 2000...disappointing
Profile Image for Rob.
143 reviews
March 6, 2023
I just finished this book. I think that the mark of an excellent non-fiction book is when it makes you care about the people whose stories it tells. This book, much as with “Where Wizards Stay Up Late,” made me care about the men and women working to wrest the control of cryptography away from the government and give (or sell LOL) it to people and businesses.
Profile Image for Marsha Altman.
Author 16 books127 followers
March 27, 2018
It was written in 2014 so it's outdated just by the nature of the beast, but this is definitely the best introduction to crypto, bitcoin, and blockchain technology that I've read so far.
Profile Image for Artnoose McMoose.
Author 1 book36 followers
May 16, 2010
So, think of this as another installment of the Artnoose Moves Into the 21st Century series, even though most of the history in this book takes place in the 70s through 90s.

Simply put, this is a history of the invention of encrypted electronic communication. It starts with a very brief history of cryptology--- Caesar ciphers, the Enigma Machine, etc.--- and follows the life stories of the people who ended up in the 1970s inventing the public-key-private-key method of encryption and the subsequent technology for encrypting data.

The invention of anything is sort of fascinating. The two-part key system is such a clever solution, and yet the idea just didn't exist until these fancy-pants mathematicians figured it out. And even then, they knew that it COULD exist years before anyone was able to figure out the exact math to make it work.

Levy describes this method of cryptology and its invention in a way that I found very accessible. Yes, it involves ridiculously high levels of math, but you don't need to be a mathematician to read this book. If you know what factoring is, you'll be fine.

Concurrent with this history of two-part key encryption is the story of the government's attempts to curtail the invention itself. The US government found the idea of civilians encrypting communication to be a terrifying prospect. The last two-thirds of the book is about the three-way struggle between software developers, the NSA, and venture capital. The book gives an interesting glimpse into a pre-internet era of national security in which the government was under the illusion that it could prevent software from crossing the border by labeling it "munitions." That is, until Phil Zimmerman took PGP and did this new thing called "uploading" which more or less made that kind of a moot point.

I gained a new appreciation for the idea of using encrypted email from reading this book. A lot of time and energy was spent inventing and protecting it (although I realize that a lot of energy was probably spent inventing thumbscrews and I'm not running out to buy some of those), and although there were several slimy entrepreneurs along the way, there were also those who honestly believed that strongly encrypted communication should be accessible to any regular person for whatever purpose.

PGP, anyone?
Profile Image for Karol.
45 reviews5 followers
January 31, 2014
Definitely an interesting reading - especially after all of the Snowden leaks. As I'm quite interested in the history of crypto - especially modern public key cryptography - I knew about most of the protagonists mentioned in the book. But there are a lot of anecdotes and interrelationship I didn't know anything about. So learning about all of this, was really a joy. Steven Levy has definitely the skill to breath life into topics most would describe as theoretical and boring. I'm pretty sure that the average reader would not *really* get an understanding of the discoveries made throughout the book, but at least everybody should get the concept and its implications.

What makes this particularly interesting is the role the NSA was playing throughout all of the history of modern cryptography. In hindsight - after all of the Snowden leaks - it is so obvious that this agency would not simply give up by allowing crypto to be exported without any restrictions, but that they would actually try to infiltrate everything they can. So, I wouldn't necessarily agree with the "conclusion" that a bunch of rebels beat the government, but that the government, after having realized that its old strategy wouldn't work any longer, has switched its way of fighting.

Of course, one could argue that, when crypto is done right, even the government isn't able to violate our privacy, but more realistically we have to understand that more often than not crypto is being implemented and/or used wrong.
Profile Image for Ed Terrell.
387 reviews20 followers
October 12, 2015
This book was a page turner! Extremely well written description of battle between individual privacy and the NSA that went on from 1980 to 2000. The era started with Martin Gardner's1977 article in Scientific American on RSA-129, a public key cryptography system and how large primes, modular arithmetic, and one way functions can be used to create (mostly) unbreakable codes. Levy mixes mathematics, history and politics to show that Big Brother doesn't always know best. From Fermat's Little theorem and Euclidean algorithms rose hash functions, message digests, chosen plain text attacks, deconstructing random number generators, Mailsafe (hybrid crypto system), zero knowledge proofs, digital money, blind signatures, key escrows, group cracking software, and anonymous remailers: the digital age has arrived and we are better off for it.
Profile Image for Ed Holden.
325 reviews2 followers
March 14, 2017
A fifteen-year-old book on technology doesn't seem like it could be relevant enough to warrant attention, but it was worth reading for two reasons. First, it's a history book, so the events and concepts haven't changed. But more importantly the world is essentially in the same state it was in when the book was published in 2002: cryptography is still legal, the export battle is still won. We still use hybrid encryption with RSA and certificate authorities, as we did then. The book feels current, and there's a lot of great detail on the political battles I hadn't known about. Just about the only major thing it lacks from recent years is the Snowden leak, which would have provided a great way to show how the NSA adapted once strong crypto went irrevocably mainstream.
9 reviews
April 10, 2016
This is one hell of a non-fiction book. I tore through it in every free moment I had in four days, and I'm probably going to re-read it, too.

It paints an exciting history (1960-2000) of the discovery of private-sector encryption algorithms, and colorful skirmishes between professors, tech-entrepreneurs and the NSA.

Profile Image for Ramesh Naidu.
205 reviews3 followers
March 13, 2022
A fascinating romp through the history and travails of cryptographers . Cryptography provides the underpinnings of modern communications and yet most of us are oblivious to this extremely important and obscure technology. It was wonderful to read about names that I had previously only encountered in abstruse literature and highlight their contributions to the entire world
Profile Image for Forrest.
7 reviews
October 28, 2017
Similar to Levy's earlier book Hackers, this book follows some of the characters involved in the birth of public/private key cryptography. Although as a math geek, I would have appreciated a bit more explanation about how cryptography actually works, I think he did an admirable job of explaining enough to make sense of his main story, which is about the personalities involved.
Profile Image for Shivasankari.
14 reviews7 followers
April 7, 2013
Steven Levy always does a good job of making a complex and potentially dry subject readable for a wide audience, using an approach similar to the approach he took in Hackers; he uses the personal history of the participants as a lens to study the history of a technology development.
Crypto outlines the history of cryptography as it lurched towards public availability. Levy provides an overview of both technical and political obstacles that occurred along the way. Examines issues of control, personal freedom, and national security.
This is the story that Steven Levy tells. Although the book tends to portray researchers outside the NSA as skillful and lucky heroes, and those inside the NSA as pompous but brilliant ideologues, it's a compelling story. The book is roughly chronological, starting with Whit Diffie's independent discovery of public key cryptography, one of the major breakthroughs that made the field feasible, the story of RSA, the ill-fated Clipper chip, and concessions the NSA was forced into against overwhelming pressure.
Mr. Levy outlines the development of a people's cryptography and its collision with the U.S. government. This book is about privacy in the information age and about the people who saw many years ago that the Internet's greatest virtue was its greatest drawback: free access to information that leads to a loss of privacy.
From a developer's standpoint, the story is interesting because it explains many of the features of cryptography as we know it today, making it easier to put them to efficient use. For example, what was the big deal with keys longer than 40-bits that the government restricted them from export? And just how much safer are 128-bit keys? Sure, we all have heard the number of hours or millennia today's computers take to break such keys, but why those specific numbers?
As with most complex controversies, both the government and the outsiders make compelling arguments for their case. Cryptography has long been the province of governments, and wars have been won and lost on the success of keeping secrets secret. But in a demographic society, individual privacy is almost sacrosanct, even though it is not explicitly guaranteed in any of the documents on which the U.S. is founded. Crypto tells the story of how these conflicting interests have been sorted out to the current state of affairs.
If you are looking for a book about crypto in order to understand "how it works", forget this book. If you want to understand how people with one obsession can change the world, just read it.

This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for Ondrej Urban.
384 reviews5 followers
January 3, 2017
If I'm not mistaken, I bought this book at the Computer History museum, in Mountain View, just across the street from Googleplex, about six years ago. When I picked it up this holidays, I might have been feeling a bit tired from all the fantasy I've made my way through recently, but whatever the reason, I was in for a treat.

I can't but make a couple of comparisons between Crypto and Simon Singh's The Code Book: The Science of Secrecy from Ancient Egypt to Quantum Cryptography. While both deal with history of cryprography, they deal with different periods (the former focusing on the modern history only). Also, Crypto is a more interesting read, in the sense that it's journalism first, science second type of a deal. It deals with stories of people and deals with metaphors and examples more than actual maths (which never really appears). The style is great, the pacing impeccable and the story built in a solid way. It has clear antagonists (apart from Eve, of course), plot and winners, even includes a kind of a twist ending.

While Crypto will not help you implement your own state of the art cryptographic algorithms, it will offer a lot of knowledge and satisfaction from reading and excellent example of good jornalism.
Profile Image for Beck Frost.
311 reviews14 followers
April 30, 2014
This book shows its age by the retrospect that occurs. The history is great and free flowing with great details, but there was so much more going on than what this book allows and the very last pages hint at this when it mentions Ellis. You never know his real contributions, but the government of the US and Great Britain side of this equation were watching the commercial cryptographers with a bit of wonder at how they were coming up with their codes and how their processes were comparing with theirs. Of course the book focuses on the commercial side, but books written just after this one show the contrast that was going on and those books are more interesting for me. I really enjoyed the parts in which this book explained how NIST came to have a huge say in the standards and I think this book explains that better than any other book I have read on that subject. I was not impressed with the author's hero worship of Hellman, and I was not feeling sorry for him when he received nothing for his contributions because he turned down every offer he received. He sounded a bit like a butt, and this author could not soften it up enough for me. Over all, a good read. Again, I like the books that do more to compare and contrast the two sides.
Profile Image for Michal Angelo.
113 reviews
July 14, 2015
Steven Levy is something of a legend amongst the annals of computing history. His writing is fresh and concise; this is a volume anyone could read, whether programmer, executive, or conspiracy theorist. Highly technical concepts are brought down to lay-terms, and yet there is enough detail to keep the gear-head interested.

This is a volume I will have on my shelf simply because I'm proud to have read it. It will go somewhere around the proximity of Donald Ervin Knuth.
Profile Image for Mahmoud.
41 reviews
March 16, 2013
الكتاب مفيد جدا لما أراد ان يعرف تاريخ التشفير, كيف بدأ والمراحل التي مر بيها حتى وصل الينا في شكله الحالي, مستعرضا أهم الشخصيات المؤثرة في هذا المجال ساردا بشكل مختصر سيرهم الذاتية.
المشكلة الوحيدة في الكتاب هو ان الكاتب لا يترك فرصة إلا ويذكر فيها ان فلان يهودي, وفلان اسرائيلي, اللهم إلا إذا كان غير ذلك فلا يذكر لا جنسية ولا دين, طبعا ستيفن ليفي مؤلف الكتاب يهودي إن لم تكن خمنت ذلك ولهذا يحاول ابراز بني دينه أو وطنه, عموما حقه, his book his rules
Profile Image for Dimiter.
94 reviews
July 26, 2018
An excellent history of what keeps the Internet booming and working. Nothing we currently have would be possible without cryptography. The value in democracy is also shown in the battle of government/NSA with researchers, something that is impossible in totalitarian regimes where any dissent is squashed.
Profile Image for Jonathan.
164 reviews20 followers
October 11, 2018
It just happens that soon after reading this book, I took a proper cryptology class as part of my computer science undergrad. This book was both: a) an awesome lesson in history, and b) an awesome 101-primer for anyone (let alone a student about to dive into the nittier/grittier details of math/etc.).

Absolutely loved this book.
Profile Image for Walter E. Anderson.
1 review1 follower
October 25, 2014
Great read

Very well conveyed story of how the last best hope for liberty was given to mankind.

Also serves as a testimony of how little trust we should have in government and it's beauracratic functionaries.
Profile Image for Karen.
1,431 reviews17 followers
March 3, 2016
Well-written and easy to read, although it turns out the subject matter didn't hit me as hard as it should, having grown up in a time when all of this had already become mainstream.
Profile Image for Yiorgos Adamopoulos.
39 reviews9 followers
August 12, 2020
It is very few times that one gets to read about stuff that happened during their lifetime with also some of the details known to him.

I was moved while reading this.
1 review
March 16, 2020
I had a hard time finding genuine interest in the material when I have no background in cryptography and don't have any relation--even remotely--with anyone in the book. The author made a good effort in breaking down different cryptography methods in a way that he hoped any layman could understand. At first, when it got down to these more technical areas of the book--where the author laid out the algorithms in [relatively] simple terms--I paused my reading and read over the author's explanations multiple times to make sure I understood them; I felt like if he took the effort in breaking down algorithms in a way he'd hoped I'd understand them, I'd better respect his efforts and do my due diligence in comprehending them. However, there are quite a number of cryptology algorithms and theories introduced in this book. And the author goes through the effort of breaking down seemingly each one of them into layman-friendly use cases. It just became too much for me: I was far more interested in the narrative and the drama than in how each and every new cryptographic method worked.

It's important to mention I am admittedly particularly slow at learning new concepts, especially STEM-related ones, which would of course lead to frustration and disinterest each time one of the seemingly dozens of cryptography methods in the book was explained to me; Not to mention almost all the cryptography concepts felt so similar at their core anyway, which made it that much more frustrating when the author would go into as much detail as he did in order to convey the workings of each one.

For many parts of the book, it seemed the traction of the story was forced to a screeching halt to make way for the incredibly dull--relative to the surrounding narrative--mathematics and theory. I really wish he stripped out most of the technical speak and saved it for some sort of addendum, to make way for the interesting parts of the story. I suppose the intended audience for a book such as this is one with a more technical mind than mine, anyway. While acknowledging that fact, I wonder if there nonetheless could've been some room to remove some of the technical details and use cases describing the workings of the algorithms to make the book less dull so it appeals to a wider audience (i.e., the less technically-minded like myself), while still keeping it accurate and comprehensive enough to appeal to those knee-deep in the field.
Profile Image for Martti.
597 reviews
March 17, 2019
Very entertaining and detailed storytelling from Steven Levy about the fight with the Goliath that is the US government. Story from the 70s till the millenium, and still extremely relevent. Finished it on the 101th birthday of my home country, Estonia. One of the poster-countries of IT in the world. During the very same day when Whitfield Diffie and Martin Edward Hellman received an award from the Republic of Estonia, because without PKI we wouldn't have ID-cards, online tax declarations, e-voting and all that great e-Estonia infrastructure that US still lacks. That Rivest, Shamir, Adleman, Diffie, Hellman and all the other crypto heroes are working towards. And they still need to hire a separate person for a week or a month to do their taxes every year. In Estonia most people do it in three minutes using public-key cryptography magic. Oh the irony.

Btw, links to Estonian State Decorations list entries for Diffie and Hellman! I'm sorry it has taken so long to give out this recognition and I'm a bit sad they (we?) didn't reward more of the "cast" of this excellent book.
Profile Image for Roger Boyle.
226 reviews4 followers
July 24, 2019
H bought this for some teaching she will do and left it in the bathroom.

Interesting enough but not helped by style or superficiality. I knew at least 90% of the tech side of this already, but he didn't present most of that - I guess he is correct in assuming most of his intended audience couldn't hack it. He covers the politics of dealing with NSA rather well, and tells a lot of good stories about the major players (of whom he knows) - I hadn't known a lot of that. It's pretty clear that a lot of this is adapted nationalistic material, and the style is downright irritating at times. Far too many irrelevant asides and slang for a "serious" book.

The Epilogue is terrific ... good to know the Brits got there first :-). But I had to wait 350 pages before he mentioned someone I had met :-(.
113 reviews
February 13, 2019
Excellently researched. 4/5 because it isn't as contemporary as I'd like it to be; that's no fault of the author though.

Introduces the cast of the open cryptographic movement in the United States from the 1960s to the 1990s and weaves a well-paced narrative tying together elements of the philosophy of privacy, government obfuscation, technological innovations, and developments in mathematics. This is a great book for someone who wants to dip their toes into the origins and champions of modern crypto. This is NOT a technical book and shouldn't be approached as such; it's a narrative-driven work.
18 reviews
February 2, 2021
Stephen Levy takes you through a tremendous story of hippies in an intellectual battle against secret government agencies in the battle for information privacy. He draws on all the major characters all the way up until the year 2000 and is objective in pointing out what is disputed and what is not. I found the story of Whit Diffie and Marty Hellman to be exceptional. Levy makes certain to describe key crypto concepts in layman terms so that the reader can appreciate the impact of these inventions without being bogged down in their implementation. Overall, a great read about the recent history of cryptography.
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