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The Science of Secrecy 68

Posted by samzenpus
from the riddle-me-this dept.
Matthew Sparkes writes "Ever since the first codes and ciphers were developed, there has been a battle between those who want to keep their information secret, and those who want to read that information. It has been a purely intellectual war, but one that is often driven by motives from above that are far more violent. This book chronicles that battle, from it's inception, to the modern day, and outlines the techniques used to obfuscate information, and the fascinating history of the application of those techniques." Read the rest of Matthew's review.
The Science of Secrecy - The History of Codes and Codebreaking
author Simon Singh
pages 224
publisher Fourth Estate, London
rating 7
reviewer Matthew Sparkes
ISBN 1841154350
summary An historical look into cryptography and crypt-analysis, with a significant amount of technical knowledge to impart also.


Cryptography has been a tool largely used by governments to avoid their communications being read by the enemy or other unfriendly states, but historically it has also been utilized by individuals to protect their more questionable or taboo activities from discovery.

This battle is presented in the book as a rather bipolar trend; cryptographers trying to protect data and crypt-analysts trying to discover the meaning of that data. I found this to be slightly misleading. The representation of the history of the field as a constant struggle between two distinct parties does make for a more entertaining read, and adds an element of conflict by conjuring images of an ancient and continual intellectual game, but in reality these two groups are often one and the same.

Whilst I admit that the race to develop stronger codes and ciphers was in many ways separate from the race to break them, they were also inextricably linked, and undertaken by the same people. One has to allow a certain amount of poetic license in popular science books, especially in this case, as it has lightened what could have been a dry topic.

The way in which the book is structured allows a complete novice access. Starting from the first discoveries in cryptography and working forward chronologically, whilst explaining the method behind the discoveries, educates the reader in basic technique without effort. One reads a fascinating historical account, and later realizes that they now have a good understanding of the mathematical concepts behind these approaches they've been reading of.

The book places these techniques into context, giving historical examples of their use. Often they are revealed to have played large and important parts in famous events, ranging from wars and political plots, to events which are not even strictly related to cryptography.

For example it is shown how crypt-analytic approaches were utilized in the deciphering of ancient languages such as hieroglyphics. These languages are dead, in that there are no living individuals who have the ability to read them, and no information was available to help in their deciphering. By studying the frequency of letters or symbols in the text, as when attempting to break a cipher, it was possible to slowly read meaning into the text, and map the alphabet.

Many of these scripts were decrypted by amateur crypt-analysts, rather than academics. One point the author makes is that there are still many that remain a mystery, such as the Etruscan and Indus scripts. One has to wonder whether a book like this, combined with the current national fixation with puzzles such as Soduko, would create a resurgence in interest, and lead to some of these being broken.

One interesting point that the book makes is that the vast majority of work performed by cryptographers is done in secret, largely for security agencies all over the world, and that this has been true for some time. Therefore it is not uncommon for crypt-analysts to receive no recognition for their work, or to have a discovery attributed to them long after their death. These organizations must classify the work in the interest of national security, so in a way this book stands as an anonymous tribute to their cunning and multidisciplinary talent.

Examples from the book of such discoveries include Charles Babbage breaking the Vigenere cipher in 1854, which only came to light in the 1970s. The author suggests that the work was kept secret to aid the Royal Navy, as it occurred just after the Crimean War started. The credit for the discovery instead fell to a retired Prussian army officer who independently discovered it in 1863.

This is shown to be one of the enduring themes of the story of cryptography, leading right through to the 1970s where credit for developing the RSA cryptographic technique went to Diffie, Hellman and Merkle in 1975, despite being developed in 1969 at GCHQ, a fact that was only publicly admitted in 1997.

A section of the book that will be of particular appeal to computer scientists is where cryptography is shown to have given birth to computing. Born from the desire for a method to perform simple operations on numbers very quickly. Computers now dominate the field of cryptography and crypt-analysis, and their ability to perform a task millions of times with no errors has transformed the science. It is also noted how much we rely on cryptography daily, in areas such as e-commerce, where our details are encrypted without us even being aware of the fact.

The final chapter is an examination into the politics of cryptography, and a balanced look into the ethical implications of governmental snooping on communication, versus the possible benefits of reducing serious crime and terrorism. This is clearly a very pertinent point in todays political climate, and a balanced look at this issue is a very valuable thing. With the heightened risk of terrorist attack, or at least the public perception of such, the government are intercepting more and more communications for analysis, and encryption by criminals is becoming more and more popular.

The book covers the topic well; from governmental use, to anecdotes about lovers exchanging secret messages. Throughout this the reader is constantly being eased into the mathematical technique behind, in a manner that does not require a background in mathematics. There is an appendix to the book, in the form of 5 cipher challenges for the reader to attempt to crack. The knowledge gleaned from the book should be preparation enough to do so, and will fascinate the curious nature of the books audience.

Matthew Sparkes' is a journalist and programmer, his homepage is Non-Tech City."


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The Science of Secrecy

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  • Other good books (Score:5, Informative)

    by ackthpt (218170) * on Friday March 10, 2006 @02:00PM (#14891987) Homepage Journal

    Between Silk and Cyanide : A Codemaker's War, 1941-1945; Leo Marks
    Leo worked in the Special Operations Executive (SOE) during WWII. During his work he observed the Poem Codes were easily breakable and suspected the Dutch undergound had been compromised in what the german's called Englandspiel (or The Game Against England) which resulted in the capture and eventual deaths of many ">dutch agents [slashdot.org]. Marks was instrumental in developing unbreakable Use-Once codes

    Enigma; Robert Harris

    Fictional thriller surrounded by the code-breaking effort at Bletchley Park
    • by Anonymous Coward on Friday March 10, 2006 @02:08PM (#14892078)
      An fun novel by Neal Stephenson about WWII's codebreaking effort and turing machines, among other things.
      • by QEDog (610238) on Friday March 10, 2006 @02:59PM (#14892640)
        I'm a huge fan of Cryptonomicon, but if you are interested in the real-life counterpart to it, check out Battle of Wits: The Complete Story of Codebreaking in World War II. Quite technical, but at the same time, action packed (the one and only Ian Fleming is in it!!!), it describes the cryptographic efforts during the war and how they redefined what we now think of Intelligence. It is a must read. Im pretty sure that Stephenson read this book and that is how he came up with the idea for Cryptonomicon.
    • Best book (Score:5, Funny)

      by flyingsquid (813711) on Friday March 10, 2006 @02:29PM (#14892288)
      Perhaps the best book out there on cryptography is George P. XQLGNIZ's GHTWENBZ HG PBLATZ NRPTKNIYPO. Unfortunately, no one has ever been able to crack the code it's written in.
      • Perhaps the best book out there on cryptography is George P. XQLGNIZ's GHTWENBZ HG PBLATZ NRPTKNIYPO

        looks a bit like GWB, in a typical speech, to me.
      • Ciphertext-only proves nothing. Sadly, most historic codes could be broken that way *cough*Enigma*cough*
      • I wanted to second this. I read this a while back, and it's what really got me interested in modern cryptography; he works up very gently from basic "Boy Scout" type secret-message ciphers (winding a paper tape around a stick, etc.) up to Diffie-Hellman key exchange and a fairly good explanation of quantum cryptography.

        The list of further reading in the back, as I recall, is quite good also. I think that's where I first was pointed towards Bruce Schneier's Applied Cryptography, which is a great (if quite de
    • I really recommend Silk and Cyanide. It's all very well reading books with lots of theory about codes but Silk and Cyanide tells you how it really is down on the ground. It was interesting how much effort was expended by the British in cracking their own codes. Out in the field agents were encrypting messages by hand and frequently made mistakes rendering messages unreadable. Part of Leo Marks's work was deciphering these messages. Leo Marks also worked on introducing the one-time-pad and it's interesting t
  • From memory (Score:5, Informative)

    by Rei (128717) on Friday March 10, 2006 @02:10PM (#14892094) Homepage
    Polyalphabetic ciphers like the Vigenete are old - 1500s. They replaced the easy to crack alphabetic ciphers used previously. A much more effective cipher was an iterative alphabetic cipher like that used on the Enigma; it was a successive series of alphabetic substitutions, but the substitutions changed based on what letter was typed previously (each letter would rotate the substitution wheels by varying amounts).

    Does this book cover the Voynich Manuscript [wikipedia.org]? I'd be interested in seing if someone cracks that (or determines that it says nothing - still, it's interesting that it follows Ziph's law!).
    • Re:From memory (Score:3, Informative)

      by MyNymWasTaken (879908)
      For those as clueless as I was...

      Zipf's law

      The probability of occurrence of words or other items starts high and tapers off. Thus, a few occur very often while many others occur rarely.

      Note: In the English language words like "and," "the," "to," and "of" occur often while words like "undeniable" are rare. This law applies to words in human or computer languages, operating system calls, colors in images, etc., and is the basis of many (if not, all!) compression approaches.

      More precisely it is the observation
    • A forthcoming book that does discuss the bredth of historical and yet-unsolved codes and ciphers [elonka.com], is Elonka Dunin's Mammoth Book of Secret Codes and Cryptograms [amazon.com]. One of the cool parts is that it includes around 600 puzzles that are encoded in these systems, along with tips about how to break each one. Solutions are included in the back for those who fail. It does address the Voynich Manuscript, though doesn't have any solutions for it. ;)

      Full disclosure: Elonka [elonka.com] is a friend of mine, and my co-moderator on

      • Re:From memory (Score:2, Informative)

        by Elonka (710689)
        Thanks Xenon. :) BTW, the Amazon listing is wrong and they haven't gotten around to fixing it yet. More up-to-date information on the book is here [elonka.com], and my current best guess as to publication date is somewhere between March 28 and April 26, 2006.

        Elonka :)

    • A much more effective cipher was an iterative alphabetic cipher like that used on the Enigma; it was a successive series of alphabetic substitutions, but the substitutions changed based on what letter was typed previously (each letter would rotate the substitution wheels by varying amounts).

      That's not true for the German Enigma machine. The rotor was stepped once for each key press. Perhaps other rotor machines like the Japanese Purple cipher machine had a variable stepping mechanism.

  • by matr0x_x (919985) on Friday March 10, 2006 @02:11PM (#14892101) Homepage
    The RSA cryptographic technique was known to have been developed by GCHQ but credit for making the technique applicable went to Diffie, Hellman and Merkle. This article makes it seem like GCHQ received no credit until the late 90s which is simply incorrect. They received credit for their ideas, but they simply were not the first to apply these ideas.
    • I think someone is confused here. RSA asymmetric key cryptography and Diffie-Hellman Key exchange are two fundamentally different procedures. Although at the end of the day allow two parts to come to the agreement of a shared secret, both also however suffer from the pain in the arse that is PKI. One reason why no-one hears much about DiffieHellman is that Diffie-Hellman keys/parameters are usually generated per secure comms session and not persistently stores. ALthough the computational hit to do this is
  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday March 10, 2006 @02:17PM (#14892158)
    Good old 'social engineering'. Actually, the history of cyphers is also a history of social engineering (phishing, spying, deception). For instance, you can have a quite weak code if no one is looking for your code. On the other hand, if you have broken the enemy's code, you don't want them to know about it. Or you could put false information in a weak code and let the enemy find and decode it. I actually find that kind of stuff more interesting than the technical details.
    • I remember a story from WWII about how the Americans had decoded a major Japanese code, and thus were aware of many messages planning a major attack on "AF", but they weren't sure what AF stood for. Nimitz suspected it was Midway Island. Nimitz had a message sent in a weak code from Midway to high command to quickly send a water tanker. Sure enough, soon afterwards a Japanese message was intercepted that read, "AF is out of water."
    • yes as one source states "rubber hose cryptography" is labor intensive but does save computer time
  • by HidingMyName (669183) on Friday March 10, 2006 @02:26PM (#14892246)
    The reviewer writes.
    This is shown to be one of the enduring themes of the story of cryptography, leading right through to the 1970s where credit for developing the RSA cryptographic technique went to Diffie, Hellman and Merkle in 1975, despite being developed in 1969 at GCHQ, a fact that was only publicly admitted in 1997
    I though Diffie, Hellman and Merkle were credited with inventing the first public key encryption approaches (with Diffie and Hellman working together and Merkle working independently). RSA is a kind of public key encryption but uses a different approach from the Diffie-Hellman approach.
    • Yup. The folks who get credit for inventing RSA were conveniently named Rivest, Shamir, and Adelman.

    • I agree and I think someone is confused here.

      RSA asymmetric key cryptography and Diffie-Hellman Key exchange are two fundamentally different procedures, although at the end of the day they allow two parties to come to the agreement of a shared secret.

      One reason why no-one hears much about Diffie-Hellman is that Diffie-Hellman keys/parameters are usually generated per secure comms session and not persistently stored. Although the computational hit to do this is nothing like generating RSA pub/priv keys it

  • by bensafrickingenius (828123) on Friday March 10, 2006 @02:28PM (#14892277)
    Take a peek at his website: http://simonsingh.net/ [simonsingh.net]. As a math enthusiast, I really liked "Fermat's Last Theorem."
  • "It has been a purely intellectual war, but one that is often driven by motives from above that are far more violent."

    Oh really. I wonder how many times a cipher was broken by first breaking the senders bones and then asking questions?
  • by stanwirth (621074) on Friday March 10, 2006 @02:35PM (#14892357)

    The first thing I wanted to know when I looked at this review was, "How is this different from his previous, The Code Book ??

    The answer is, not much at all, by the author's own admission:

    NB: The Science of Secrecy is my second book on cryptography. My first, called The Code Book, covers similar material to the Science of Secrecy. It is already available in paperback so it is somewhat cheaper. The advantages of The Science of Secrecy are that it is in hardback, better illustrated, and follows the structure of the TV series. If you have read The Code Book then you probably would not want to read The Science of Secrecy, but you might want to buy it as a present for a friend. Signed copies of The Code Book can be bought via this site. You can buy the Science of Secrecy from Amazon.co.uk

    In other words, if you've already read The Code Book (and you should! It's great!), you won't need to rush out and buy Science of Secrecy -- but if you want to get a gift for someone, a hardback copy of The Science of Secrecy (along with the DVDs of the TV series if available) might server better.

  • The review sounded rather familiar to me. I've got Singh's book 'The Code Book', turns out that's almost the same.
    From Singh's site [simonsingh.net]:

    (quote)
    The Science of Secrecy is my second book on cryptography. My first, called The Code Book, covers similar material to the Science of Secrecy. It is already available in paperback so it is somewhat cheaper. The advantages of The Science of Secrecy are that it is in hardback, better illustrated, and follows the structure of the TV series. If you have read The Code Book then
  • Not Available (Score:2, Insightful)

    by uab21 (951482)
    You can purchase The Science of Secrecy from bn.com

    Purchase... well, EIGHT copies are available from the used section - no new copies, as it was originally published in January of 2000.

    It sounds like an interesting read, but why post this if it isn't available in even double digit quantities?

  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday March 10, 2006 @02:42PM (#14892447)
    Ever since the first codes and ciphers were developed, there has been a battle between those who want to keep their information secret, and those who want to read that information. It has been a purely intellectual war, but one that is often driven by motives from above that are far more violent. This book chronicles that battle, from it's inception, to the modern day, and outlines the techniques used to obfuscate information, and the fascinating history of the application of those techniques.
    • by Anonymous Coward
      CoUld soMeone qUickly explain how the parent poST can BE modded as funNiE WHen thERE is nothing funny about it!
  • Wrong title (Score:4, Informative)

    by Logic Bomb (122875) on Friday March 10, 2006 @02:48PM (#14892517)
    The book's correct title is "The Code Book: The Science of Secrecy from Ancient Egypt to Quantum Cryptography". (See title at Amazon [amazon.com].)

    I'm a little surprised we're seeing a review of it only now; it's 5 or 6 years old. I have it, and greatly enjoyed it.
  • The facts (Score:5, Informative)

    by slashdotmsiriv (922939) on Friday March 10, 2006 @02:52PM (#14892570)
    Is the reviewer clueless of crypto history? "This is shown to be one of the enduring themes of the story of cryptography, leading right through to the 1970s where credit for developing the RSA cryptographic technique went to Diffie, Hellman and Merkle in 1975, despite being developed in 1969 at GCHQ, a fact that was only publicly admitted in 1997" RSA=Rivest Shamir Adleman. Diffie, hellman and Mercle introduced the concept public key crypto. Diffie and Hellman based their DH scheme on the difficulty of the discrete log problem. RSA introduced public key crypto based on the hardness of factorization of a large composite.
  • It was a great introduction to encryption. I'd love to see it again to show others but never repeated and couldn't find it.

Them as has, gets.

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