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?"
For me, that is both the most important and the most interesting
question that Levy needed to face, and he takes it head-on. In
particular, he adds considerable scope (although little depth) to
describing the history of the Clipper chip. What were the NSA
(and the politicians) thinking? Well, as Levy describes it, the
key was the conflict between the FBI and the NSA, and the
illogical government approach was largely driven by the resulting
schizophrenia. Conspiracy nuts won't like that conclusion, but
it makes more sense than believing that the government really
expected it could put the crypto genie back into its bottle.
For those who don't appreciate the importance of crypto in the
Internet-connected age, this book is the best education in that
area. There is room for a better one to replace it, but it
doesn't exist now, and likely won't be written.