The Code Book

Towards the end of last year I started to work on a task / project to add encryption for data transfers between storage servers.  As usual I like to understand as much as possible what the subject is all about before starting the software design and implementation.  For that purpose I opened my trusty Goggle browser and did several searches for books and papers in the subject.

The one I chose to read first was “The Code Book” by Simon Singh.  The book is not technical but provides a good review of some of the salient topics in cryptography developments through history, a great starting point.

I typically read about a couple dozen books a year.  Some of them are quite technical in nature (computer science and mathematics) while others are quite informative and outside my fields of expertise (e.g., biology).

“The Code Book” describes in quite detail some older encryption mechanisms and algorithms.  Some of them were used several thousand years ago.  In general encryption or the quality of encryption has had a tremendous impact in our history.  If you are a history aficionado you might also be interested in this book.

Most of the ancient encryption methods have proved trivial to cryptanalyst with current techniques and computers.  The One Time Pad is still the best algorithm but its application in modern society and technology is relatively complex to say the least.

Back in the First World War, the Germans conspired to attack the USA.  With the help of the British analyzing an encrypted message from Germany to Mexico discovered the plot.  A lot of care was taken to keep a secret the way the message was deciphered.  The Allies did not want to jeopardize the fact that they have broken the encryption of the Enigma machine.

The Enigma is an encryption / decryption machine that automated the process.  It was quite complex.  Decades ago the military and banks made use of similar machines to exchange messages with troops and branches respectively.

For me the two salient points in the book were  [1] how governments protect encryption making it a secret and  [2] how they want to play big brother with their citizens.

Encryption algorithms, based on their strong mathematical background and proof, it is better left to the very few professionals who have embraced this field.  For the most part, one needs a Ph.D. in math in order to come up with methods that will stand public scrutiny and time.

In order to develop algorithms and be able to decipher encrypted messages a lot of computer power is required.  In general it appears that only very large companies (in the order or 100,000+) employees and relatively large governments (i.e., China, Israel, UK, USA among others) are able to afford good encryption and cryptanalysis.   It appears that cryptanalysis, at different levels, may pay better than developing from scratch products.  This does not say much for business practices but it appears to be a reality.  Many business espionage cases have been reported by the news and literature.

In conclusion, whether you are interested in a view of the history of cryptography or just want to raise your personal awareness of what has, is and might be done with it for and against privacy, get a copy of “The Code Book” and arrive to your own conclusions.  You might consider using encryption programs (i.e., PGP) immediately 🙂

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