Keeping secrets and how to thwart those efforts

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Keeping secrets and how to thwart those efforts

The glamour of code-making and code-breaking is probably more in the retelling and in the effects that breaking a code can have more than in the actual work itself. As Simon Singh recounts it, both disciplines have been marked by slogs, punctuated by occasional flashes of brilliance that lead to a breakthrough.
But codes and ciphers have been around for as long as mankind has wanted to keep secrets, and Singh does a brilliant job at tracing the evolution of cryptography.
He begins with an account of the cipher of Mary, Queen of Scots, who was beheaded by her cousin, Queen Elizabeth I for attempting to usurp her. After describing the history of cryptography to that point, he returns to the efforts by the English court to break a cipher used by Mary to communicate with a group plotting a rebellion against the English monarch.
That chapter, with basic information on the history of codes and ciphers, is important, but the pace is plodding. By then end of the chapter, I was impatient for Mary to lose her head and be done with it.
From then on, the book becomes steadily more engrossing. With the bare minimum of mathematics and technical detail, it describes the fundamental breakthroughs in cryptography that have brought us today to the prospects for quantum cryptography, a bizarre exploitation of even more bizarre concepts. The most dramatic passages describe the British success at cracking the German Enigma code of World War II.
Singh has a gift for simplifying concepts that in less skillful hands could be opaque. He patiently and skillfully feeds the reader information in small enough chunks as to be digestible, but keeps the narrative moving along briskly. Only after reading this book did I understand the methodology of Pretty Good Privacy, a modern publicly available encryption program that has some interesting lore connected with its development.
With the cryptanalysis basics laid out, Singh digresses a bit in a chapter on attempts to translate lost languages ― most famously, the Rosetta stone that allowed archaeologists to read Egyptian hieroglyphics. That chapter is a digression because those scripts were not created to keep secrets from anyone, but when the languages were lost, so were the keys to deciphering them. Singh mixes historical facts nicely with descriptions of the codebreaking techniques used.
Even for someone without a preexisting interest in the subject matter, “The Code Book” serves as an interesting introduction to a subject that will become more important as digital commerce expands. It is also at the center of tension between civil libertarians concerned about governmental Big Brothers and law enforcement and security officials who fear being hobbled by the use of ciphers they cannot break. In addition to the aura of glamour, codes and ciphers also are an issue with important policy dimensions for all of us.

The Code Book
By Simon Singh
Anchor Books, 2000
(First copyright 1999)
21,130 won at Kyobo Book Centre

by John Hoog
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