Once in a while I run into a work of dramatic fiction that takes such a powerful, realistic look at modern cryptography — and its implications for our national security — that we should all be grateful to the author. They’ve made us all a little bit smarter.
Needless to say, Dan Brown’s Digital Fortress is not one of those books.
What is Digital Fortress? I’m not sure. It may be a practical joke. I’m hoping so, anyway, because the alternative — that Dan Brown spent time learning about cryptography and this is what came out — is too terrible to contemplate.
Miraculously, the end result is so ridiculous that it’s almost tolerable. Almost.
(Before I go further, I should warn you that there are huge spoilers below. But don’t worry about it because (a) you shouldn’t read this book, and (b) the plot is so predictable that I doubt it can really be spoiled.)
Where to begin? Let me just hit some of the high notes:
- Matt Blaze gets whacked. Ok, Brown doesn’t call him Matt Blaze. The character in the book is named Greg Hale (single syllables, get it?) But we know he’s Matt Blaze because he single-handedly discovered a backdoor (“a few lines of cunning programming”) in the Skipjack cipher, one that would have let the NSA “read the world’s email”.
For his efforts, Blaze/Hale is rewarded with a thankless job at the NSA which he hates. And not without reason! Everyone suspects him of being a turncoat (while simultaneously giving him access to their most important secrets, go figure.) Then to cap off the job experience, he’s horrifically murdered. I personally would have ended the book halfway through, and just made Hale the bad guy. Who could blame him
- The EFF are the bad guys. Did you know that the National Security Agency (2011 ops budget: $9 bazillion) lives in constant terror of the “sharks” over at the Electronic Frontier Foundation (2011 ops budget: $67.34, mostly spent on construction paper)?I did not know this. I sure hope it’s true.
Near the end of the book the NSA’s “firewall” goes down for a few minutes, and within seconds the EFF sharks are circling. This does not appear to be a metaphor — they’re actually swimming in literal circles around the NSA’s cyber-perimeter, trying to ferret out our nation’s secrets. Only our hero Susan Fletcher can stop them, thanks to her long, willowy legs staggering intellect.
- The NSA has a secret supercomputer named TRANSLTR that can brute-force any cryptosystem. Hmm. Ok. This one is actually pretty accurate.
- TRANSLTR is stumped by a new cipher that uses “rotating cleartext” to resist brute-force attacks. No, seriously. “Rotating cleartext”. Brilliant! This is such a good idea that I hereby offer to make this scheme a reality for only $800. My only condition is that you must never, ever try to decrypt anything with it.
I suppose I could also mention the NSA’s recruiting program for cryptographers, which would make a Big Ten football coach blush. Or the way that brilliant, righteous people always seem to be beautiful and athletic, while stupid evil people look like trolls (have you ever been to a crypto conference, Dan?)
These and other details are embedded in a stew of unintentional comic awfulness that really defies summarization. But it’s good. Not to read, mind you. Just to know about, so you have a reason to chuckle while you’re lamenting the damage that Brown’s writing has done to your temporal lobe.
I really could not recommend this book less, and am considering sending Dan Brown a bill for the time I spent reading it. But if you’re afflicted by a terrible case of Seasonal Affective Disorder and just need some levity in your life, it might keep you giggling through the long dark months ahead.