The Code Book

Rating: +

Simon Singh

This is the type of book I can't imagine anyone not liking, but I accept that presumes a greater affection for mathematics than it seems is common. But that does not mean one needs a strong math background to enjoy this book, nor that it is a book primarily about math. It presents the evolution of codes and code breaking techniques via the events, linguistics, people, and technology which drove their advancement.

Singh organizes his history of codes as a struggle between code builders and code breakers, with each side gaining and losing the upper hand over time. He starts with codes developed by ancient Egyptians and then discusses the historical significance of breaking codes in Elizabethan England. Code breaking during WWII and breaking Enigma are also covered in depth. A number of interesting anecdotes from coding history are included. However, by presenting codes not just chronologically but as interactions between those who are trying to hide information and those who are trying to discover it, the technology used to improve codes over time is explained and motivated. A coherent picture of coding is given, rather than just a series of isolated anecdotes. 

The most modern code described is PGP, which at this point represents the victory of code writers over code breakers. There is also a brief discussion of proposed legislations to mandate key repositories and allow law enforcement officials access to coded content. Its assessment, made in 1999, that such efforts will continue to be overturned unless the desire for privacy becomes outweighed by the desire for security has been born out by recent events. 

On top of the high-level survey of coding, Singh selects a number of codes and code breaking techniques to describe in detail, including providing examples which the reader can work through on their own. Furthermore, the book closes with a challenge collection of several codes to attempt to break, of increasing difficulty. By the time I was done reading about the challenge and excitement of code breaking, I was excited to have a few to work on myself.

In all, I would recommend this book, both as a nice introduction to codes and their role in various parts of our lives and history, and also as an easy technical survey. While there may not be as much unfamiliar content to those with a computer science background or knowledge of codes, the historical and political context is interesting.


Review written April 2002.


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