Spooky Little Boys

By Hari Kunzru, 10 April 2001

Though cryptography has long been a staple topic of activist discussion, it has yet to appear on the mainstream political radar. This is largely due to the abstruse nature of the technology – it would be an extraordinary orator who could enthuse the average voter about the significance of increasing key lengths from 64 to 128 bits, or persuade a public which is only just coming to terms with the internet that crypto is a serious civil rights issue, rather than a simple question of protecting your credit card number. Yet this is where we are today, and unless someone finds a way of putting crypto on the agenda, the erosion of the right to privacy will continue unabated.

Steven Levy’s book is the latest in a long line of pop science volumes which tell the story of a technical breakthrough by concentrating on the personalities involved. It’s a workmanlike effort which makes no attempt to explain the maths behind the topic, although it will still be of use to anyone who has ever puzzled over the significance of Diffie-Hellman key exchange, RSA, triple DES or PGP. The book is most interesting when it sheds light on the workings of the ultra-secretive NSA (No Such Agency, in spook-slang), which has battled for thirty years to keep crypto out of public hands. From slapping restriction orders on public scientific papers to undermining companies attempting to export crypto software, Levy portrays an agency which has always taken the view that secrecy for itself is good, but bad for everyone else, to the extent that its agents, when signing in to a meeting with Nathan Myrvhold at Microsoft, refused to give their surnames. Now that’s paranoid.

Hari Kunzru <>

Crypto: Secrecy and Privacy in the New Code War // Steven Levy // Penguin Allen Lane // January 2001 // 368 pages // ISBN 0-691-05062-7 // £18,99