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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. Author Steven Levy, deservedly famous for his enlightening Hackers, tells the story of the cypherpunks, their foes, and their allies in Crypto: How the Code Rebels Beat the Government. 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 [via]