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The Code Book: The Science of Secrecy from Ancient Egypt to Quantum Cryptography Paperback – August 29, 2000
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People love secrets. Ever since the first word was written, humans have sent coded messages to each other. In The Code Book, Simon Singh, author of the bestselling Fermat's Enigma, offers a peek into the world of cryptography and codes, from ancient texts through computer encryption. Singh's compelling history is woven through with stories of how codes and ciphers have played a vital role in warfare, politics, and royal intrigue. The major theme of The Code Book is what Singh calls "the ongoing evolutionary battle between codemakers and codebreakers," never more clear than in the chapters devoted to World War II. Cryptography came of age during that conflict, as secret communications became critical to both sides' success.
Confronted with the prospect of defeat, the Allied cryptanalysts had worked night and day to penetrate German ciphers. It would appear that fear was the main driving force, and that adversity is one of the foundations of successful codebreaking.
In the information age, the fear that drives cryptographic improvements is both capitalistic and libertarian--corporations need encryption to ensure that their secrets don't fall into the hands of competitors and regulators, and ordinary people need encryption to keep their everyday communications private in a free society. Similarly, the battles for greater decryption power come from said competitors and governments wary of insurrection.
The Code Book is an excellent primer for those wishing to understand how the human need for privacy has manifested itself through cryptography. Singh's accessible style and clear explanations of complex algorithms cut through the arcane mathematical details without oversimplifying. --Therese Littleton
"It would be hard to imagine a clearer or more fascinating presentation. . . . Mr. Singh gives cryptography not only its historical dimension but its human one." --The New York Times
"Entertaining and satisfying. . . . Offers a fascinating glimpse into the mostly secret competition between codemakers and codebreakers." --USA Today
"A good read that, bless it, makes the reader feel a bit smarter when it's done. Singh's an elegant writer and well-suited to the task of leading the mathematically perplexed through areas designed to be tricky." --Seattle Weekly
"An absorbing tale of codemaking and codebreaking over the centuries." --Scientific American
"Singh spins tales of cryptic intrigue in every chapter." --The Wall Street Journal
"Brings together...the geniuses who have secured communications, saved lives, and influenced the fate of nations. A pleasure to read." --Chicago Tribune
"Enthralling...commendably lucid...[Singh's] book provides a timely and entertaining summary of the subject." --The Economist
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I was wondering at one point, whether I would turn a page to find that it describes how the IPhone was actually invented just after the Second World War by the scientists working for the British cryptographic division (the men of Betchley park as described in this book), but that they had to destroy all evidence in order to keep things hush-hush.
However, I still completed the book because the author is a good story teller, like the uncle you have who tells you interesting bawdy stories in a bar when both of you are drunk, and you listen to him even though you do not believe the truth of those stories. I have a strong suspicion that this is how the author got his tales. There is a certain amount of romanticism involved in stories of secret writing and ciphers. Usually, cipher solving is cryptic and difficult to understand. Simon Singh has a done a fantastic job making the codes often used in history understandable for layman, even those not mathematically inclined. Therefore, it is possible for every one to enjoy the art of secret writing by reading this book.
I am not particularly sure of the historical accuracy of certain claims made in the book.. For example, for certain historical events like the trial of Mary, Queen of Scots, she was alleged to have corresponded in secret with a conspirator who wanted to kill the protestant Queen Elizabeth and restore to the throne the catholic Queen Mary. But that allegation made by Walsingham, the spy master of Queen Elizabeth, was rejected by Mary. The letters used for the trial which were apparently written in code cracked by Walsingham's cipher expert could have been forgeries made by Walsingham's man under his orders. My reason for suspecting this is because frankly the letter allegation does not hold water. The letters were apparently written in code by the conspirator and Queen Mary apparently could break that code and reply in the same cipher. Since Queen Mary was not a cipher expert herself, how could she or her maids crack the coded letters from an English conspirator outside her castle prison without ever having met the conspirator and therefore never having had agreed on the cipher system being used. Also apparently that cipher was not a well known cipher at that time. And the possibility that the cipher key was passed along with the letter smuggled inside a wine barrel (as what was alleged) does not make sense because who would pass a coded letter and also the cipher key through the same channel of communication. Therefore, I believe that the letter story was a sham. It is just one more cleverly resourceful way of falsely accusing someone that we have often seen in history. Ofcourse, Simon Singh, the author of this book does not investigate whether the story of Queen Mary having used secretly coded letters to communicate with conspirators as claimed by Queen Elizabeth's spy master is actually historically accurate. The story was too "juicy" for him not to have included it in his book, even if the story might be actually historically inaccurate and the letters were forgeries used by Walsingham and Queen Elizabeth to murder her cousin, Queen Mary, who was a political threat to her. My condolences to Queen Mary of Scots though I am several hundred years too late. She would have made a good queen of free Scotland if she could have reigned longer.
Another point, which I am not sure of in terms of historical accuracy is the Betchley Park story. All the documents and machines, allegedly made there during World War II, which apparently broke every German code used in German communications (including Hitler's comms to his generals), are said to have been destroyed. If there is absolutely no evidence left, except the claims of a few guys after about thirty years, then how can these claims be trusted? If all German code was broken during the war, why did the British have such a tough time fighting? Ofcourse, the author, Simon Singh, does not care. He gets another to story to write about.
Despite the historical lack of credibility of the book, I enjoyed reading it as it helped me understand several codes used and raised my level of interest in the subject. The book highlights how important persistence is in all human endeavors.
Desclaimer: I have read this book by borrowing from a library. I did not actually buy the book from Amazon. But I did want to leave my review because I felt I had some important things to say about it. Thanks for reading till so far down that you came to this line.
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.
In The Code Book: The Science of Secrecy from Ancient Egypt to Quantum Cryptography, author Simon Singh reveals the often hush-hush world of the science of secrecy.
How powerful are these cryptography tools? Until about only a decade ago, the U.S. Department of Commerce categorized strong cryptographic tools the same way it did F-15s and M-16s (more about that in Chapter 7).
Singh is a particle physicist who understands the science well and, more importantly in the case of this book, knows how to explain those details quite well.
Sit back and be enthralled by the fascinating world of cloak-and-dagger spies, and how without strong cryptography, we wouldn’t have online banking, Amazon Prime, and other things that make life meaningful.
For anyone who ever had to study for the CISSP certification examination, the cryptography domain was almost always the hardest and most intimidating of the ten exam domains. While the ISC2 recently retired the cryptography domain and put it under Security Engineering, any topic with obscure terms such as hash function, public key cryptosystem, side-channel attacks and the like will certainly be intimidating.
In The Code Book: The Science of Secrecy from Ancient Egypt to Quantum Cryptography, while not a comprehensive overview of cryptography, this masterful book by Simon Singh is a history of encryption, with a focus on the 16th century to the end of the 20th century. As a history book, Singh strikes a good balance between writing about the history, and providing a good technical and mathematical overview of the topic of cryptography
With a Ph.D. in physics, Singh follows in the footsteps of fellow physicist, Richard Feynman, who was a great explainer. Feynman noted that if a specific topic couldn’t be explained in a freshman lecture, it was not yet fully understood. In the book, Singh spends about 400 pages on this freshman lecture. It’s worth noting that a number of freshman university courses use this book as a reference; it’s that good.
I first became acquainted with Singh when he gave a most entertaining keynote at an information security conference about a decade ago, where he dispelled the claim that Stairway to Heaven contained subliminal satanic messages.
Classic cryptography goes back thousands of years. While the book provides details into cryptography from the times of the Bible, Caesar and more; its focus is predominantly on the modern era, starting with the cryptography used by Mary, Queen of Scots in the mid-1500s, up to the topic of quantum cryptography.
The book covers a wide range of topics, from both a historical and technology perspective. Singh takes a broad approach to the topic and doesn’t focus entirely on ciphers and algorithms, rather he brings historical stories like the Rosetta stone, Man in the Iron Mask, Manhattan Project, Navajo Code Talkers and much more.
While encryption and cryptography have their roots in the world of mathematics and number theory, the book often places a focus on the human elements. While many cryptosystems work perfectly in the pristine environs of a lab, they will fail miserably when incorrectly implemented. Singh gives numerous examples, from Mary, Queen of Scotts to the German Enigma cipher machine, where the human element leads to extreme failures.
A number of the eight chapters start with a story, which Singh then uses as a lead to provide the underlying details of a specific aspect of security and cryptography.
For the story of Mary, Queen of Scots in Chapter 1, the message is that the underlying cipher needs to be reasonably impenetrable. In Chapter 4 on cracking the Enigma machine, the message is that even the strongest of cryptography devices finds its kryptonite if its users don’t follow the directions.
Chapter 5 on Language Barrier is perhaps the most fascinating chapter in the book. Singh details the story of how the U.S. used Navajo Indians and their obscure language as a means of ensuring the Japanese would have a much harder time deciphering the messages. By the time the war ended, the Japanese were never able to read a single message when Navajo was used.
The chapter also details the story of the Rosetta stone. While not a cryptographic issue in the common sense, hieroglyphics had been indecipherable for thousands of years. Singh writes how common wisdom at the time was that the Ancient Egyptian language of hieroglyphs should be treated as symbols and not letters. Singh highlights the story of how Jean-François Champollion was able to decipher the stones by using new research that the hieroglyphs were indeed letters, not symbols.
Anyone involved with cryptography knows terms such as Diffie–Hellman and RSA on a first-name basis. Those cryptosystems are the very backbone of today’s Internet security infrastructure. Singh does a good job of explaining how they work and what makes them secure. For RSA, it’s built on a very simple premise, that factoring the product of two huge prime numbers is difficult. While most people may be oblivious to it, much of the underlying security for online banking and the Internet is built on top of RSA.
The book closes with the next generation of secrecy, which is quantum cryptography. As a particle physicist, quantum mechanics is Singh’s bread and butter. When Singh wrote the book, quantum cryptography was not a practical technology, and that is still the case.
As a side note, if and when quantum cryptography becomes practical, it would be so powerful as to be able to break every RSA key in existence.
The Code Book was first published in 1999, around the time Windows 2000 came out. While the latter became obsolete in 2005, The Code Book is still quite germane given the value of the information in the book, which is still relevant and of interest.
For those looking for an encyclopedic reference, David Kahn’s The Codebreakers: The Comprehensive History of Secret Communication from Ancient Times to the Internet is the definitive tome on the topic.
For those looking for a more informal and selected overview of some of the core topics from the last 600 years of cryptography, this book is readable and interesting, and a perfect read for those looking for an introduction to the topic.
Those looking for a captivating and very readable book on the history of modern cryptography will find The Code Book: The Science of Secrecy from Ancient Egypt to Quantum Cryptography a valuable read, and one that is certainly worthy of being in the Cybersecurity Canon.