184 of 190 people found the following review helpful
on November 2, 1999
Before Singh's "Code Book" came on the scene, the only other book I knew about is Kahn's "Codebreakers". I don't have the time to read such a large text as Kahn's book, so I was very pleased when this book became available.
Singh has done a very nice job of demonstrating how deep an impact cryptography has on history. He opens the book by recounting Mary Queen of Scots' conspiracy to have Queen Elizabeth murdered and how she attempted to use encryption to cloak her intentions. It was a very exciting way to open the book.
Singh has found the right combination of technical detail, historical detail, and character development.
Singh's explanation of how the German WWII Enigma functioned is exceptional. He made it very easy (and fun) to understand.
Singh's last chapter is also very neat on the subject of quantum cryptography. Though I have a BS in computer science, I'm no physics genius and Singh did a nice job of making (what I consider) difficult physics concepts easy to understand and of showing how they can be applied to modern cryptography.
Although I don't know a thing about "Fermat's last theorem", I've been so pleased with Singh's writing style that I'm considering reading that book also just to see what it is all about.
If you like codes/ciphers and want to read about their impact on history without reading a thousand pages then get this book. You'll be happy you did.
84 of 86 people found the following review helpful
on December 13, 1999
Mr. Singh traces the history of cryptography from its recorded inception in roman times up through current applications. While all of the chapters held my interest it was Mr. Singh's work in chapters 4 through 6 that I feel deserve particular note.
Chapter 4 deals with the war effort at Bletchley Park and the work on the Engima machine. Here Mr.Singh adds an additional dimension by providing some insight into the work of Alan Turning, the development of Colossus, the first (now reported) electronic programmable computer and the unrecognized cryptanalysts who broke Ultra and the other codes of WWII. Chapter 6 brings us up to present day cryptographic issues from RSA and PGP to philosophical issues of personal privacy in modern society with web centric commerce and online book reviews. At each step in the process Singh successfully combines the elements of a technical treatise with a human values and features. For those wanting to go a little further under the hood and look at the processes and algorithms in some of the codes mentioned in the text, several appendices at the end of the book should fill that yearning. I found the book informative and enjoyable to read.
68 of 69 people found the following review helpful
on November 18, 2000
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
If you like to read about how secrets, the protection of and the finding out, have affected and altered the course of history, this is a fun book to read. If you're interested in a very good, enjoyable overview of the history of secrets, this is a good book.
Ultimately, though, it's light. The history of cryptography is enormous, and a book this size can only summarize. If you're into the history, then The Codebreakers by David Kahn is the more definitive work.
If you're more interested in the personal stories of people involved with code making or breaking, there are some excellent works, such as Between Silk and Cyanide by Leo Marks, which give you more detail of particular people or times.
If you're interested in modern-day issues with computer security and encryption, Bruce Schneier has written two outstanding books, one for the programmer and one for the layman, detailing modern cryptographic techniques and security issues.
And if you're interested in a gripping fictional work, they don't come better than The Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson.
That's not to take away from Singh's book at all. It's extremely enjoyable, and it was a perfect vacation read for me. If you're not seriously into cryptography the way I am, you might not find the above books interesting, but find Singh absolutely fascinating. Recommended to anyone.
59 of 62 people found the following review helpful
on March 30, 2000
It took me a while to finding to the time to read this because I was expecting a rather dry book on cryptography. The subject was somewhat interesting to me, but I didn't feel like plodding through a long book on the subject.
Once I started reading I realized The Code Book was totally different. Singh takes you on a tour of the history of cryptography through the history of the world. You will find that cryptography was an unexpected key element in several historical events.
Through the entire history, Singh's writing is exceptionally clear and easy to follow. The material in the book is accessible to all levels of reader -- even those with no knowledge of cryptography.
37 of 38 people found the following review helpful
on September 25, 1999
Not really in any substantive sense a history of cryptography, this book gives one very much the same feeling as if watching a well done television documentary. This is not particularly surprising, as the author works on programs such as PBS' "Nova" in his day job. This makes the book an easy and pleasant read, but it chooses its focus rather oddly, often emphasizing persons and events out of all logical proportion to their real historical significance. In fairness, the author does concede that he is not attempting to write a history of cryptography, as that has already been done comprehensively by others, especially David Kahn ("The Codebreakers," recently reprinted). While Americans are given inappropriately little attention until the chapter on public-key cryptography -- I think William F. Friedman is mentioned once in passing, and Herbert O. Yardley perhaps twice -- the selection of subject matter is a refreshing change from the usual stories that are rehashed over and over in most books on cryptography. It is particularly nice to see the British WWII cryptanalytic efforts at Bletchley Park being given their due, since Bletchley's people such as Alan Turing and Tommy Flowers have had to suffer from their work being kept secret until several years after Kahn's and most of the other principal histories had been written. The acknowledgement of the early Polish effort with German Enigma which made the British effort possible is also comparatively rare, again mostly because of the secrecy which until recently surrounded the matter, but it is likewise long overdue. I was also pleased to see the chapter on the decipherment of Cretan Linear B, which the late Otto Neugebauer -- probably then the world's leading expert on Babylonian Cuneiform and no slouch himself -- told me made his work look like "child's play." (Neugebauer's popular "The Exact Sciences in Antiquity" is still in print, too.) It would have been nice to see some discussion about the success with which cryptanalytic techniques similar to those used in connection with Linear B have been applied within just the last few years to Mayan inscriptions, but one cannot have everything. The tie-in between Linear B and Navajo "code talkers," both of which depended upon cultural influences, was a most unusual perspective. Interestingly, there is some hint at the same basic issue in connection with Judaism, where Martin Hellman's experiences with anti-semitism are discussed and it is noted that the critical insight which led to the RSA cryptographic system occurred immediately following a Passover seder where Ron Rivest, Adi Shamir, and Leonard Adelman were all present together. Ultimately, the approach of the book is, in "human drama" television documentary style, to choose some story or person as respresentative of each aspect of cryptography in history, including some of world-making historical importance such as the execution of Mary Queen of Scots or the breaking of German ciphers in WWII, some of great importance within their field such as the work on Linear B, and some of entirely marginal importance other than as curiositis such as the Beale letters. The technical explanations of cryptographic systems such as the Vignere Cipher are excellent and should be clear to anyone, and are much better done than in the average book on the subject. Where the explanation would be so involved as to be distracting to the reader, the technical issues are relegated to one of the many appendices as is appropriate. Even the discussions of speculative techniques such as quantum-state transmission are relatively easy to follow. Overall, I cannot recommend this book as a serious history of the subject -- read Kahn for that -- but it is a fun and entertaining read for someone knowledgable and a respectable introduction for anyone else fascinated with cryptography and cryptanalysis.
32 of 33 people found the following review helpful
on January 28, 2010
This book has many fascinating and important stories to tell, and some of them are told remarkably well. Still, if you're expecting "The Code Book" to be as compelling or well-fashioned as Singh's thoroughly absorbing "Fermat's Enigma," you will likely be disappointed. Which is not to say it's a waste of time. "The Code Book" demonstrates Singh's ability to bring historical characters and events to life, sometimes to great effect. And it covers a respectable amount of territory. That said, I think Singh can do better, and I hope one day he decides to revisit this one and work it over a bit.
I have three main issues with the book.
First, Singh glosses over or completely ignores significant details. For example, while he expertly tells the story of Mary Queen of Scots, he forgets to address one crucial question: How did Mary and her scheming cohorts agree upon a key for their cryptography? The way Singh tells the story, it seems impossible for them to have established a secret key, for their correspondence was intercepted from the start. Those reading their encrypted messages would already have had the key. Yet, Singh's narrative relies on there having been a secret key, because he makes a big deal about when and how their cipher was broken. So how was the secret key established? Singh doesn't say. This simple omission makes Singh's otherwise well-told story deeply problematic. Another example: Singh does not explain the Enigma machine very well, leaving out many details which could have at least been relegated to another appendix. The book has ten appendices already. What's one more?
Second, Singh is inconsistent at times. It often feels like he didn't have the time or patience to carefully organize his thoughts. To take one example, he believes that quantum cryptography is absolutely secure, because it cannot be broken even in theory; yet, he also notes that there are ways of intercepting messages before they are encrypted (for example, by reading electromagnetic signals from a computer as its keys are being struck). The logical conclusion is that no form of encryption can guarantee absolute privacy, even if it is theoretically unbreakable. Yet, Singh suggests that global quantum encryption could mean the end of privacy and thus of civilization as we know it. This could be a case of choosing drama over accuracy, or it could just be the result of sloppy thinking. Either way, it's annoying.
Lastly, Singh feels the need to spell out a good many concepts repeatedly, in excruciatingly simple detail. This might be necessary for a small percentage of his readers, but I found it mind-numbing. Eventually I decided to completely skip over paragraphs that began with the words, "To understand this more clearly . . ." or anything of that sort.
All in all, I'm not sorry I read this book, and I would not discourage most people from reading it--especially those looking for a very basic introduction to the history of codes and ciphers. To his credit, Singh explains at the outset that this is not meant to be a comprehensive treatment of its subject. Yet, I cannot help but think that he could have done a better job if only he (and his editors) spent a little more time on it. A revised edition is in order, in which the flaws in the original are corrected, and in which the present (and future) of codes and ciphers is given an update.
24 of 24 people found the following review helpful
on February 9, 2008
As a mathematician in the early 1970s, I saw many advertisements recruiting mathematicians for the CIA. I knew that it had to do with cryptography and number theory but it was all very mysterious and since I never got a job with them I didn't see precisely how the disciplines fit together. As Singh describes the discover of the RSA coding system it all becomes very clear.
The story he tells is particularly interesting because it starts with the ancient Romans and the decoding of the conspiracy messages of Mary Queen of Scots in Elizabethian England.
Singh also wrote an very interesting account in layman's terms of the discoveries that led to the proof of Fermat's last theorem. That skill is also demonstrated in this book where the key concepts of cryptgraphy are discussed as they were developed through history. The uses of cryptography in World War I and World War II are brought out. We learn of the men in England at Bletchley Park who were able to decypher the German Enigma Machine and play a major role in the latter success of the allies. The gain of information from the U boats enabled the Americans to transport supplies and soldiers to Europe to fight the war. The U boats were very successful at destroying American ships prior to the breaking of the code.
It is interesting that after the war the academic community in the United States solved the problem of key passing for computer networks and developed the RSA code. These discovery were developed earlier and independently in England at their secret agency the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) based on the unheralded ideas of James Ellis. Their work was kept secret until the late 1990s when their achievements were finally brought to light.
The book also discusses the archaeological work on the Rosetta Stone and Linear B. This work uncovered the meaning of the hieroglyphics and showed that the Minoans language was a form of Greek. The techniques were very much akin to deciphering code.
Also of interest is the Navajo code talkers who used their language as an unbreakable code during the war in the Pacific in World War II.
Recent developments and conjectures about future breakthroughs are discussed in the last few chapters. The book provides very useful information about other books and interesting web sites including one that allows you to download Zimmerman's Pretty Good Privacy (PGP) which provides RSA level security.
17 of 17 people found the following review helpful
on September 28, 2000
The Code Book, Simon Singh's introduction to the race between cryptologists and cryptanalists, code-makers and code-breakers, is probably one of the most pleasant popular science reads of the year.
The first chapter starts with the description of the monoalphabetic substitution ciphers, its failure and the consequence of the latter, the execution of Mary Queen of Scots. From then we proceed to polyalphabetic ciphers, the Vigenere Cipher and the Babbage's method of breaking it; as an added bonus Singh has thrown in the three Beale papers, allegedly leading to over a ton of gold buried in the hills of Virginia. The third chapter describes the path Germans made between the world wars, from the Zimmerman note disaster to the construction of Enigma. Closely related to it is the next chapter, a story about the Poles and the Brits cracking Enigma.
The fifth chapter is a step aside: on deciphering texts that are not purposely encrypted, but simply written in extinct languages and scripts, like Egyptian hieroglyphics or Minoan Linear B script. From then on, we are probably already on the more familiar territory; the discovery and re-discovery of public key cryptography, and its application in Phil Zimmerman's PGP. The last chapter tries to provide a peek into the future: quantum computers that can break currently uncrackable codes in linear time, and quantum encryption, which cannot be broken without violating the laws of physics.
Apart from the Beale treasure papers, Singh added another gem for aspiring cryptanalists: they can test what they have learned with ten ciphertexts in the appendix, and the author promised to pay 10.000 GBP to the first one who solves all of them. And Singh proved to be a good teacher: to date, nine stages out of ten are solved already (the last one involves a massive amount of CPU time).
True, David Kahn's Codebreakers contains a more exhaustive treatment of the historic development of cryptography, and Bruce Schneier's Applied Cryptography will provide you with a knowledge needed by a working specialist. However, if you share just a casual interest in the area, this is the book for you. It's much more than just stories about people involved in the cryptography and other related trivia - you will be surprised that Singh's lucid explanations will actually make you understand how the algorithms work.
21 of 22 people found the following review helpful
on June 1, 2011
Format: Kindle EditionVerified Purchase
I had some time ago borrowed and read the book, and it was witty and informative. Read the other reviews about the content of the book.
However, now I bought the Kindle Version, and found out that none of the various figures that are crucial to explain certain ciphers have made it into the Kindle Version.
Another example: When Singh explains that he has 'hidden' a text by marking some letters on this very page with a little inconspicuous dot below, it defeats the purpose if the Kindle doesn't display those dots.
Seriously, get the book, but the real book, not the Kindle Version.
20 of 21 people found the following review helpful
on October 23, 2000
The fine popular science writer Simon Singh (author of _Fermat's Enigma_, about the proving of Fermat's Last "Theorem") has just put out _The Code Book_, a quick survey of the basics of cryptography from a historical perspective.
Singh's book is an enjoyable and well-done overview of the basics of cryptography. He begins with a story about how Mary Queen of Scots was doomed because her crypto was bad, and continues up to the present day. He describes the 16th Century French Vigenere cipher, World War I cryptography, including the Zimmerman telegram, and lots of detail about Enigma. There is a fascinating side branch into the related issue of deciphering ancient languages. He does a good job describing the Rosetta Stone and the work in deciphering that, and a good job discussing Linear B. The concluding chapters discuss computer based cryptography, particularly the Data Encryption Standard, Public-key Cryptography, the RSA algorithm, and Pretty Good Privacy. I was a bit disappointed in the final chapter, on Quantum Cryptography, which didn't explain things as clearly as I would have liked. Their is also a set of ciphers in the back, and a contest for readers to try to decode them.
Singh does a good job describing the characters involved, in the best tradition of popular science. And though I've known a bit about this subject for some time, he still taught me lots of new stuff. I was particularly surprised to learn that British researchers had invented both Public-key Cryptography and an equivalent to RSA several years before the more famous inventor, but that the British government had classified their work, denying the researchers credit for their discoveries.
This is a sound, entertaining, and informative introduction to the basics of cryptography.