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Crypto: How the Code Rebels Beat the Government--Saving Privacy in the Digital Age [Hardcover]

Steven Levy
4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (29 customer reviews)

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Book Description

May 2003
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 Steven 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.

"Gripping and illuminating." (The Wall Street Journal)
--This text refers to the Paperback edition.

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From Amazon

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 --This text refers to the Paperback edition.

From Publishers Weekly

The author of the 1994 sleeper Hackers reveals how a group of men developed methods for encrypting digital transmissions for use in the private sector. As the digital age was dawning in the late 1970s, a major stumbling block to delivering information and conducting transactions via high-speed networks was the lack of security from outside parties who might wish to intercept the data (even though the National Security Agency had acres of computers dedicated to protecting government secrets and even more designed to decode other countries' messages). Widely available systems only began to emerge after a range of free thinkers, including such crypto legends as Whit Diffie and Marty Hellman, began to devote their considerable mind power to the issue. After a slow start, Levy's story steadily builds momentum as the crypto pioneers do battle with the NSA, look for ways to commercialize their discoveries and fight for the federal government's approval of the strongest encryption methods. The chief technology writer for Newsweek, Levy locates the heart of the matter in the struggle to balance the need for the most effective encryption possible with the government's need to decode messages that might endanger national securityAa struggle in which privacy, so far, has prevailed. Agent, Dominick Abel . (Jan. 8) Forecast: Levy's reputation grows with each book, and publicity that links this title to his bestselling Hackers will ensure strong sales. The title is backed by a six-city author tour and national radio satellite tour. The major promo campaign online, where Levy is minor royalty, may be most effective, but the book's biggest boost will come from the planned excerpt in Newsweek.
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Customer Reviews

Most helpful customer reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Plaintext review :) Dec 8 2003
It was a great to learn about the origins of crypto and the different people which brought about this revolution to protect privacy of everyone.At times i admit i had to read a paragraph twice as it became confusing sometimes but all in all a great book and a must read for anyone interested in crypto.
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3.0 out of 5 stars Solid Journalism, Mediocre Literature Nov. 24 2003
According to the flyleaf, David Kahn (who wrote "The
Codebreakers") said of this book that "Steven Levy has written
cryptography's 'The Soul of a New Machine'". There may be some
truth to that, but mostly it implies a level of prose that is not
in evidence in this book. Steven Levy is no Tracy Kidder, aside
from an occasional tendency to let his prose override his
writing. What Levy is, however, is a pretty good technology
journalist, and the book is at its best when it trades on that
background. Indeed, Levy used a great deal of research in this
book which doesn't appear to have been used for his earlier
magazine articles. While the book is not footnoted, there is an
extensive "notes" section at the end. There is also a
bibiliography, and an index.
One thing that Levy fails to do is make his "characters" come
across as fascinating individuals. This is not for lack of
trying -- clearly he finds them fascinating himself. However,
his prose fails him, particularly when trying to raise what a
journalist would call "human interest."
The strength of the book is not in its revelations of fact
either. The events described are already well-known to anybody
with an interest in the subject (in a number of cases,
particularly for events over the last decade, this is due to
Levy's own journalism in "Wired" and elsewhere). Aside from
filling in the history for those previously unaware of it, Levy's
interviewing skills turn up new evidence of the answers to one of
the most frequently repeated questions in the history of open
cryptography: "what were they thinking?
Read more ›
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5.0 out of 5 stars History of modern cryptography Nov. 6 2003
By Uri Raz
I've read Simon Singh's book on the history of cryptography, and had some doubts whether this book would add much, but having enjoyed Levy's "Hackers", I bought this book as well.
This book focuses on the second half of the 20th century, and on the subjects of privacy in the digital era, and thus has little in common with Singh's book.
The book covers a lot of ground in a relatively short text (about 300 pages) in a clear and fascinating way, and I've enjoyed the book and finished it in a couple of days.
Other reviewers noted that the book contains little technical information. I think it makes for better focus on the larger issues of privacy, security, e-commerce, etc.
For the gory details, one can read books such as Bruce Schneier's Applied Cryptography.
My only problem with the book is that it is somewhat biased against the U.S. government's position.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Gripping Oct. 3 2003
By A Customer
Mr. Levy needs to write more books. Crypto is an excellent examination of modern day cryptography inteleaved with intrigue. It's just a stupendous story that will blow your hair back. When you finish this book, the first thing you will do is go find out what happens where Levy leaves off. Exellent book.
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1.0 out of 5 stars Drab and Uninteresting Jan. 31 2003
It is more of a history of the characters than the history of RSA or cryptography. I would recommend Simon Singh's The Code Book for anyone wanting to learn about the history of cryptography. In just one chapter of the Code Book, Simon Singh puts in more unbiased and detailed information in an infinitely more interesting and readable manner than Levy crams in this whole book of uninteresting chapters.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Pretty Good Presentation :-) Jan. 13 2003
I enjoyed reading this book; Mr. Levy has an engaging and readable style. One can always wish for more, but in my case, I would have liked a chapter about crypto activities in other countries besides the U.S. and Great Britain. For example, what do we know, if anything about what the Soviet Union or, say, Israel was doing in this field over the years. As example, do we have evidence that U.S. developments were actually put to use by other countries. Otherwise, for me, now on to read "Hackers"!
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By totor
This book is a contribution to the History of crypto and computing, assuming that this history changes very much our everyday life even if we are not into computer field.
It focuses on the story of the people who opened the crypto Pandora's box, allowing todays e-business long before the word was even invented. It starts with Whit Diffie (Diffie-Hellman) in the late 60's, through Rivest, Shamir and Adleman (RSA) and ends with Zimmerman (Pgp) and Helsingius (remailer). It also follows other conributors to crypto and business people (eg. : from RSA, Lotus) as well as some politicians and people involved at the NSA.
The author describes the oppositions between the pro-crypto-for-everyone and the US government, the government self-contradictions and oppositions with the tech firms. This includes facts about the NSA, the Clipper Chip issue, the patents problems, etc. These are always seen from the viewpoint of the various people involved at that time.
It is easy to read and does not need any technical or maths background. If focuses on the people. It does not discuss the subject : it tells us the story.
If you are looking for a book about crypto in order to understand "how it works", forget this book. If you want to understand how people with one obsession can change the world, just read it.
The author manages suspens very well, from the beginning to the end. This book is hard to close : you really want to get to the next page.
So why not 5 stars ? Because I think this book could have been perfect with just a few diagrams showing the crypto algorithm (eg. : differences between Diffie-Hellman and RSA are not clear). Ok... ok... I give 5 stars only to books which change my life. This one is exciting, informative and well written, but not to that point.
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