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Crypto: How the Code Rebels Beat the Government Saving Privacy in the Digital Age Paperback – December 31, 2001

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Editorial Reviews Review

If the National Security Agency (NSA) had wanted to make sure that strong encryption would reach the masses, it couldn't have done much better than to tell the cranky geniuses of the world not to do it. Author Steven Levy, deservedly famous for his enlightening Hackers, tells the story of the cypherpunks, their foes, and their allies in Crypto: How the Code Rebels Beat the Government. From the determined research of Whitfield Diffie and Marty Hellman, in the face of the NSA's decades-old security lock, to the commercial world's turn-of-the-century embrace of encrypted e-commerce, Levy finds drama and intellectual challenge everywhere he looks. Although he writes, "Behind every great cryptographer, it seems, there is a driving pathology," his respect for the mathematicians and programmers who spearheaded public key encryption as the solution to Information Age privacy invasion shines throughout. Even the governmental bad guys are presented more as hapless control fetishists who lack the prescience to see the inevitability of strong encryption as more than a conspiracy of evil.

Each cryptological advance that was made outside the confines of the NSA's Fort Meade complex was met with increasing legislative and judicial resistance. Levy's storytelling acumen tugs the reader along through mathematical and legal hassles that would stop most narratives in their tracks--his words make even the depressingly silly Clipper chip fiasco vibrant. Hardcore privacy nerds will value Crypto as a review of 30 years of wrangling; those readers with less familiarity with the subject will find it a terrific and well-documented launching pad for further research. From notables like Phil Zimmerman to obscure but important figures like James Ellis, Crypto dishes the dirt on folks who know how to keep a secret. --Rob Lightner --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

The author of the 1994 sleeper Hackers reveals how a group of men developed methods for encrypting digital transmissions for use in the private sector. As the digital age was dawning in the late 1970s, a major stumbling block to delivering information and conducting transactions via high-speed networks was the lack of security from outside parties who might wish to intercept the data (even though the National Security Agency had acres of computers dedicated to protecting government secrets and even more designed to decode other countries' messages). Widely available systems only began to emerge after a range of free thinkers, including such crypto legends as Whit Diffie and Marty Hellman, began to devote their considerable mind power to the issue. After a slow start, Levy's story steadily builds momentum as the crypto pioneers do battle with the NSA, look for ways to commercialize their discoveries and fight for the federal government's approval of the strongest encryption methods. The chief technology writer for Newsweek, Levy locates the heart of the matter in the struggle to balance the need for the most effective encryption possible with the government's need to decode messages that might endanger national securityAa struggle in which privacy, so far, has prevailed. Agent, Dominick Abel . (Jan. 8) Forecast: Levy's reputation grows with each book, and publicity that links this title to his bestselling Hackers will ensure strong sales. The title is backed by a six-city author tour and national radio satellite tour. The major promo campaign online, where Levy is minor royalty, may be most effective, but the book's biggest boost will come from the planned excerpt in Newsweek.
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Series: Penguin Press Science
  • Paperback: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Books; 1st edition (January 15, 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0140244328
  • ISBN-13: 978-0140244328
  • Product Dimensions: 5.4 x 0.9 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (60 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #632,672 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

72 of 76 people found the following review helpful By J. G. Heiser on January 21, 2001
Format: Hardcover
Levy is one of my favorite essayists. He finds a compelling story, researches it exhaustively, and then shares his excitement. The history of Internet cryptography is a perfect subject for Levy, who delights in recounting stories about technoradicals with new ideas who see them through to fruition.
Encryption truly is one of the most critical technologies necessary for a smoothly functioning virtual world, and is very much the case that the U.S. Federal Government successfully delayed the general availability of strong encryption for at least a decade. (Future economists may point back to the last two decades of the 20th century and show how this failed government policy was responsible for the loss of U.S. dominance in the high-tech market.)
It would have been easy to take the politically correct road and portray the Feds as being evil conspirators, bent on maintaining their own power and pride at the expense of the entire world. Levy chooses a more balanced approach, depicting the NSA in nearly heroic terms. He is especially sympathetic towards Clint Brooks (a name I did not know), an NSA lifer who developed the key escrow concept as a compromise that would allow widespread public utilization of strong encryption while still allowing law enforcement (and of course, intelligence agencies), the ability to intercept communications under controlled circumstances. If both the NSA and their philosophical opponents are heroes with noble goals, a tragic ending is inevitable, which adds an element of pathos to this triumph of democracy.
As a former software vendor, I've been totally frustrated by both the crypto export laws and by the NSA attitude of "If you only knew what we knew, you wouldn't even ask that question.
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17 of 19 people found the following review helpful By Stephen Cole on February 7, 2001
Format: Hardcover
Steve Levy presents an accurate picture of the events surrounding todays crypto debate in his book "Crypto." Unfortunately, he does it with the same narrative style he uses for his magazine articles. The result is that the events are correct, but the story unfolds more like a textbook, not a novel.
Overall, it is an interesting (if dry) read, and, at times will add words (a la Neal Stephenson in Cryptonomicon) to your vocabulary. If you are interested in the history of todays debates on cryptography, I recommend it. If you want to know more about cyphers and other code making/breaking, I would recommend something like Simon Singh's "The Code Book."
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14 of 16 people found the following review helpful By Victor A. Vyssotsky on May 13, 2001
Format: Hardcover
This book is an entertaining account of many of the people and episodes involved in making cryptography and cryptanalysis a respectable and important topic of work for scientists and engineers not affiliated with any government agency. The incidents recounted that I happen to know about personally are well and accurately described here. But there are a couple of gaps.
First, some of the key players "on the outside" are not mentioned; this may well be because most of those who aren't mentioned by now are "insiders." But this results in some of this book being a bit misleading. For example, serious work on cryptanalysis by outsiders, including one piece of work that Admiral Inman, when head of NSA, described as "the most brilliant piece of civilian cryptanalysis since World War II", was already going on by the late 1970s; this had serious national security implications, and helps to explain why NSA was so ambivalent about "outsiders" engaging in *any* crypto research. Overall, although NSA goofed badly several times, I think they managed to keep a more balanced view on the issue than I might have expected. The fact that Levy doesn't mention some of the key "outsider" work suggests to me that he may not have talked with (or at least didn't gain the confidence of) such people as Cipher Deavours and David Kahn, who could have given him perspective on the "outsider" work that he doesn't discuss.
Secondly, I infer that he was unable to get any of the NSA side of the story from NSA itself. This is a pity. It's presumably not Levy's fault; NSA only talks to people it decides to talk to, and then says only what it decides needs to be said. I assume that Levy tried to get information from NSA and failed; I don't know.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful By Marcelo P. Lima on April 29, 2001
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This easy-to-ready short history by writer Steven Levy, who has written numerous articles for Wired, is a very well-researched volume on the human side of public-key cryptography.
Levy has interviewed all of the major players: Diffie, Adleman, Chaum, Zimmerman, and others; he's done nearly a decade of research on the subject, and monitored the sci.crypt.* newsgroups. Clearly, this is an authoritative account of the short 30-year history of public key.
The main theme of the book is how the NSA tried to stifle new developments by the researchers, placing secrecy orders and classifying their patents and papers. Throughout the book, as Levy draws out the characters, it's the crypto community vs. the government, until ultimately the cypherpunks win out.
This book doesn't contain a single diagram; no photos, and no equations at all. So if you're looking for a technical introduction to crypto, look elsewhere; this is purely an informally-written account on the people behind the scenes.
Five stars, for what it is; sure, Levy writes with magazine-style prose, but this fits the high-level view he takes on the subject. Most importantly, this volume was exhaustively researched and has the collaboration of all of the key players, which lends Levy's account great credibility.
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