Crypto. How the Code Rebels Beat the Government-Saving Privacy in the Digital Age.
by Steven Levy.
Viking 2001. 356 pages. Index, Bibliography, Glossary, Endnotes. $25.95 Hardcover. ISBN 0-670-85950-8 LoC QA76.9.A25L49 2001.

Reviewed by  Robert Bruen   May 27, 2001

Anyone who has paid even a little attention to the battle for every citizen to have unfettered access to strong cryptography over the past decade will be familiar with names like Diffie, Hellman and Zimmermann. They should have heard of public key cryptography, the Clipper Chip and the problem with exporting cryptography. Most of them will not understand what it all means and what these people did for the rest of us. Steven Levy has provided them, and us, with a clear history of who these people are, what they did, how they did and what it means. And he has done it very well.

Those of us who were adults while this insurrection was taking place remember the events as they happened, but it is quite an experience to read about it from beginning to end in a narrative such as this. Privacy was once obtained simply by walking away from other people out of earshot. Now we are under constant video surveillance with our telephone conversations and email grabbed from the air by Echelon. The only way the average citizen can keep electronic conversations private is through strong encryption. The war between those who would hide their communications and those who would know them has been waging for millennia. The Information Age has significantly upped the ante, because now anyone can communicate to anyone else, anywhere on earth, or even off the earth. Those who want to know these communications have access to better technology than the average person, keeping the war in high gear. Fortunately, the mathematicians and the rebels have created tools to protect our communications. The tools are powerful, easy to get and relatively easy to use. The tools will likely be useful for many years to come.

This is the story of how the idea of public keys come into being. The addition of a method to allow it work, RSA, began the assault. The NSA and the federal government fought back with laws, regulations, public relations and threats. There was even a failed attempt at technology (Clipper Chip). Eventually, the government gave in, as it should have in the first place. After all, this is still the United States of America, land of liberty and freedom, no matter what some temporary government employees say.

Anyone who thinks they know about recent history needs to read this book. The impact of the work of the code rebels will be felt for a very, very long time in all aspects of our lives. We live in a time when everyone has access to information about everyone else. Most of the information comes from public records and records that were not supposed to be public. To protect what we communicate to other people, we need to use cryptography. There is not a lot we can do about public information being known, only what can be done with the information once it is known. We can do something about what we tell other people in the future, which means deciding what we will allow others to know from the non-public domain and what we decide to keep from entering into the public domain through the use of encryption.

I worry a little about the these guys becoming folk heroes, but not too much. We owe them something for winning the fight to keep a bit of freedom in our hands. We owe Levy something for writing their history so we can know about them as people. Definitely a recommended book. It's an easy, enjoyable and educational read.