Book review

Crypto by Steven Levy, published by Allen Lane (ISBN 0713993464)

Within hours of the attacks on the US, federal agents were visiting internet service providers (ISPs) to install new surveillance technologies. As the phoney war continues and the public is warmed up for a long haul, government powers here and in the US are being readied to deal with the supposedly new threat. And although Osama bin Laden is well known to have done away with any technology that can be monitored, it is electronic communication that we are told provides a secret channel for terrorists to plan.
So it is timely to look at the whole issue of cryptography – the making of secret cyphers. In the tradition of his previous books on complexity theory and hacking, Levy works from the people to the issues. In Crypto we are introduced to the mathematicians, hackers, cypherpunks and businesspeople, in government and outside, who've been developing the means of secure private communication for more than 30 years.
Levy is a journalist and his books read like it. The reader is swept along with a narrative and compelling characters, but that's not to say his writing is superficial. He manages to use his players to get at the issues, politics and philosophical dilemmas at the heart of a particular technology.
Surveillance and cryptography go hand-in-hand and no more surely than they will in the future. The issues are not just about individual privacy, but about e-commerce, validation, the financial systems and the network economy. Levy has done us all a service by providing an accessible and thought-provoking history of not just some clever mathematics but a basic building block of the digital era.