“Crypto” by Steven Levy

By Deane Barker on September 7, 2002

Steven Levy has written dozens of books about the Internet and technology in general. I got this one in a bargain bin at a bookstore while on vacation, but it was surprisingly good nonetheless.

Crypto” is the story of how high-level cryptography made its way from the land of the National Security Agency and got into the hands of the common man. It explains the origin of RSA, DES, one-way ciphers, public/private keys, etc. Ever wondered why some software titles have weird “export restrictions”? Crypto explains in detail the battle behind the the 56-bit key export limit.

The theme of the book is how the common, everyday hacker had to fight the U.S. government to develop and publish really strong crypto. The government has a vested interest, you see, in keeping crypto weak because they monitor communications. If Osama Bin Laden got his hands on super-strong crypto, he could talk freely without us ever knowing.

In the end, I was torn. While I think everyone should have access to a tool this closely related to privacy, the government has a point. It comes down to battle of prinicples vs. reality. In the book, the hackers wrapped themselves in the American flag and talked about liberty and freedom, which is great. But the government basically said, “There are people plotting against the U.S. who will be able to do it more freely with stronger crypto.” Principles aside, that’s a pretty strong argument.

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