The Code Book

April 4th, 2003 Comments Off

The Code Book, by Simon Singh, is a fascinating account of the development of cryptography. The book recounts the evolution of this art through the centuries, describing the historic challenges and duels behind the search for privacy and security in communications. Starting with military espionage in ancient Greece, and ending with the still experimental quantum cryptography, Singh traces a great panorama of a science that affected world’s destiny in more than one occasion.

The history of cryptography has his heroes, villains, myths and misconceptions, and Singh makes a great job of showing the facts in their adequate context. He describes, albeit in a limited form, the general principles behind cryptography and cryptanalysis, allowing the interested reader to understand the intricacies of creating secure codes, and the even bigger complexities of breaking those codes, even when they look deceptively simple. The book also analyzes the recent developments in the field and the social and ethic concerns that permeate those developments. Additionally, Singh tells a bit of the histories concerning the deciphering of ancient writing and lost idioms, which bear strong resemblance to unknown codes.

Although the book is necessarily condensed, given cryptography’s rich history, it doesn’t lose its interest because it omits some events is that history. On the contrary, the high level perspective it presents allows the reader to understand how much cryptography influenced human history. Anyway, for readers interested in complementing their knowledge, the book offers a big list of additional reading going well beyond the book purposes.

As in his previous book, Fermat’s Enigma, Simon Singh shows he is a natural-born writer offering a light, understandable, and amusing text. Even the last chapters, which involve relatively complex concepts, are written in a completely accessible way to any reader willing to think about them.

The book is also of special interest to any person involved with Computer Science, as it shows the deep relationships between those two sciences. Characters as Alan Turing, Ron Rivest, Adi Shamir, Leonard Adleman, Phil Zimmermann, Whitfield Diffie e Martin Hellman appear when modern cryptography is described. The book also does justice to unknown heroes like James Ellis, Clifford Cocks e Malcolm Williamson, which independently developed public key cryptography many years before it was discovered by American scientists but were not allowed to publish their inventions because of security restrictions imposed by the British government.

In short, the book is totally recommended for any person interested in the field, and makes for an absorbing reading even for people not particularly interested on it.

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