Crypto

Steven Levy, 2001, Viking

It’s subtitled “How the Code Rebels Beat the Government — Saving Privacy in the Digital Age”, and the common theme throughout the book is the “code rebels” (the individuals outside the NSA who were interested in cryptography) against the US government (whose interest and involvement in cryptography diametrically opposed those rebels’ privacy concerns). It is an interesting read, and provides a readable, (mostly) non-technical overview of cryptography. It starts with Whit Diffie’s realization that the privacy of his information on an multi-user timesharing system was in the hands of, and at the mercy of, the system administrator; the more he thought about that, the more he became convinced that there had to be a better way, and that as computers and networks became widespread, the privacy of his information and his communications was increasingly at stake. The story takes off from there.

Coincidentally, the day after I finished reading Crypto, the latest issue of Wired showed up in the mail. This issue’s (August 2005, 13.08) cover story is “10 Years that Changed the World” and is the story of the Web, the start of Netscape, and the explosion of the Web into almost every facet of life as we know it. I was struck by how much the work of those cryptographers enabled that explosion and changed the way we live and communicate. No e-commerce without that public key cryptography they worked so hard to invent and then, in spite of the government, make both available and reasonably secure would mean no overnight shipment of books on CSS and Python from Amazon.