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Crypto: Secrecy and Privacy in the New Cold War (Penguin Press Science) [Paperback]

Steven Levy
4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)

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Book Description

31 Jan 2002 Penguin Press Science
If you've ever made a secure purchase with your credit card over the Internet, then you have seen cryptography, or "crypto," in action. From Stephen Levy--the author who made "hackers" a household word--comes this account of a revolution that is already affecting every citizen in the twenty-first century. Crypto tells the inside story of how a group of "crypto rebels"—nerds and visionaries turned freedom fighters—teamed up with corporate interests to beat Big Brother and ensure our privacy on the Internet. Levy's history of one of the most controversial and important topics of the digital age reads like the best futuristic fiction.


Product details

  • Paperback: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Books Ltd; New edition edition (31 Jan 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0140244328
  • ISBN-13: 978-0140244328
  • Product Dimensions: 20.2 x 13.7 x 2.1 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 425,685 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Amazon Review

Author Steven Levy, deservedly famous for his enlightening Hackers, tells the story of the cypherpunks, their foes, and their allies in Crypto; 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.

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

Review

"Gripping and illuminating." --The Wall Street Journal "A great David-and-Goliath story--humble hackers hoodwink sinister spooks." --Time

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A very good account 1 Mar 2002
By A Customer
Format:Paperback
This book covers the emergence and rise of strong cryptography starting at the end of the 60's. Although this might sound like a dry subject, Levy's account is humourous, very readable and an accurate account of how stubborn academics, coders and libertarians wrong-footed our governments and revealed or discovered this important technology for the public.
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11 of 14 people found the following review helpful
By A Customer
Format:Paperback
After Hackers, another Levy book in the form of true 'stories' about exceptional individuals in their relative field, this book doesnt disapoint.
Most people will only have a basic understanding of the history of crypto (if any), but after reading the book I cant say that the history of DES,Clipper, PGP, and public key crypto is a worthy read.
Of course, the twist and best is saved for the epilogue. I cant recommend this book more. Another great achievement, with like 8 years of research to ensure the best possible and true story.
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Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
A fascinating and incredibly detailed examination of the development of public key encryption by private individuals and their continuing battles with the US Government and the bureaucratic empire that the NSA had become. This account places Edward Snowden as only the latest of many people who have suffered for revealing the lack of clothes these emperors wear. Not difficult to read, written by a journalist rather than a computer geek, this is a splendid account of a struggle that is not over yet.
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Amazon.com: 4.3 out of 5 stars  52 reviews
70 of 74 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Compelling story should be of interest to all 'net users 21 Jan 2001
By J. G. Heiser - Published on Amazon.com
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." That argument turned out to be just as specious now as everyone thought it was at the time, but the marvelous aspect of this book is that Levy is able to make a cynic like me accept that the people within the Puzzle Palace have legitimate motivations. (He is much harsher on the FBI, and creates an especially unflattering portrayal of Louie Freeh). It's a well-balanced approach to a very contentious subject, which adds considerably to the author's credibility.
Personalities loom large in a history like this one, and Levy is a master at drawing them out of their personal shells and detailing aspects of their private lives to explain their motivations and feelings. Whitfield Diffie is the old master who had the vision to conceive of a new model for encryption that would meet the unprecedented needs of a network society. Ron Rivest was the energy behind the development of the most significant public key algorithm, created by an unlikely trio of inventors. Jim Bidzos was a young playboy who found the commercialization of the RSA technology to be the challenge he needed in his hitherto shallow life of world travel, hot cars and fast women. Like Diffie, Phil Zimmerman marches to a drummer that only he can hear, yet this amateur programmer succeeded in popularizing strong encryption long before RSA and its millions in venture cap money did. Given his ten years of personal research and interviews of the people he chronicles, Levy's will probably be the definitive written account on many of these quirky visionaries.
The book is a quick read, but a good one. Technically, it is very accurate, with one unfortunate mistake on page 178 where it reads "Then he uses the hash function to recreate Alice's message from the digest..." Hash functions are 1-way functions, and cannot be reversed. If it read instead, "Then he uses the hash function to recreate Alice's message digest..." it would be more accurate. In order to verify a digital signature, the encrypted hash value provided by the sender is decrypted by their public key, which is then compared to another hash value generated by the verifying party (see p. 38 of "Applied Cryptography, 2nd Edition" by Bruce Schneier). Other than this confusion over how digital signatures are verified, the book does an excellent job of presenting the concepts of public key encryption to a non-technical reader. Besides being an enjoyable tale of business and technology history, this book could also be considered an executive-level introduction to the need for encryption on the Internet and the ways in which modern implementations provide it.
If you want to know what is happening when that little lock icon at the bottom of your web browser closes, you'll find a conceptual answer in this book. You'll not only learn the sequence of events that led to the development of SSL, but you'll also read the history of the first successful attempt to crack SSL security, and its significance to you as a customer of sites like Amazon. "Crypto" should appeal not only to those who are interested in the history of technology, but anyone wanting to understand more about the history and personal and commercial use of encryption on the Internet. Anyone involved in an e-commerce project or with an interest in information security would find this an interesting and accessible book. It is not a technology book per se, but I think most technically-oriented people will enjoy reading about how people like them had the drive and vision to change the world-especially when the odds were so heavily stacked against them.
This is a compelling and important story that needs to be told and understood. Levy is neither the first to undertake this telling, and undoubtedly won't be the last, but I'm convinced that this will become a classic of technology history-even more so than his earlier books. His thoroughness, extensive research, and evenhanded approach will make this book an important source for future researchers.
16 of 18 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Dry but informational 7 Feb 2001
By Stephen Cole - Published on Amazon.com
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."
14 of 16 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Very good, but incomplete 13 May 2001
By Victor A. Vyssotsky - Published on Amazon.com
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. But if NSA stonewalled Levy, it's because he didn't make the right contacts to get in touch with somebody who would have been willing to talk with him about NSA's viewpoint on various issues Levy discusses that are not sensitive in NSA's view. That extra information would have helped make Levy's book clearer and more complete. In spite of this, Levy is quite fair to NSA, which speaks well of his thoughtfulness and balance.
So, overall I regard this as a good book, well worth reading, provided one keeps in mind that it's not the complete story.
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent short history on the human side of pub. key crypto 30 April 2001
By Marcelo P. Lima - Published on Amazon.com
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.
9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Goes "Behind the Firewall" for an Insider's Account 18 Jan 2001
By Stephen Hardiman - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Riveting true stories that are well researched. Levy weaves an intriguing account of cryptography's "eccentric patriots" and their dedication to the craft. It is primarily a story of people and the government politics that tried to ensnare them, not a treatise on ciphers and hashing algorithms. Explanations of cryptography are lucid, even if math wasn't your best subject.
It's an excellent addition to American historical literature that we've sorely lacked after 50 years of Cold War stifled journalists from reporting details about anything that might threaten national security.
Non-fiction literature buffs and researchers will appreciate the copious endnotes, glossary, and index. While it also includes an extensive bibliography, Levy conducted many interviews to write this original work.
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