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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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What is in the book –
The book goes beyond many others in the area of codes and ciphers in that it discusses very up to date topics (at least up to 1999 when the book was written), such as the ciphers being used for Internet transactions and questions of privacy and code breaking. The book also covers material on the deciphering of hieroglyphics and Linear-B, which are not covered in other books on codes. I found the sections on the techniques used to decipher messages enciphered with a Vigenére table and the algorithms employed by the DES and RSA systems to be very clear and enlightening. The book contains information on the Enigma machine and the work at Bletchley Park in Britain to decipher the messages sent on it. However, this material is not as detailed as the material in books such as Budainsky’s “Battle of Wits”, Kahn’s “Seizing the Enigma” or Sebag-Montefiore’s “The Battle for the Code”, so if this is your primary interest I would direct you to these sources. However, if your interest is more general then I think that “The Code Book” is an excellent choice.
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.