Book Reviews

Digital Fortress – Dan Brown

Digital Fortress – Dan Brown

This is the first book by Dan Brown I’ve attempted to read, nearly 10 years after the entire hype regarding the DaVinci Code had died down.

Short Synopsis:

When the National Security Agency’s invincible code-breaking machine encounters a mysterious code it cannot break, the agency calls its head cryptographer, Susan Fletcher, a brilliant and beautiful mathematician. What she uncovers sends shock waves through the corridors of power. The NSA is being held hostage… not by guns or bombs, but by a code so ingeniously complex that if released it would cripple U.S. intelligence.

Caught in an accelerating tempest of secrecy and lies, Susan Fletcher battles to save the agency she believes in. Betrayed on all sides, she finds herself fighting not only for her country but for her life, and in the end, for the life of the man she loves.

I got it from a charity shop and guess what – that’s exactly where it’s returning now that I’ve finished it.

Needless to say, this book did NOT age well. With ever-evolving cryptography and encryption practices, I had to laugh when they were talking about foiling an attack on the New York Stock Exchange that was to be done with magnetic fields – erasing all the data stored on “tape drives, floppy disk drives and EMACs”. OMG – these things haven’t been used in the last 10 years at a minimum. They only had three firewalls which protected the core data and for some reason, they had a central location where they stored every file they could put their hands on. From a software perspective, that is a massive no-no. I was laughing out loud when they were talking about the hackers swarming to their core, like they were some sort of angry bees, trying to get to the honey pot.

To save you 4h of reading, let me summarise the main plot.

There was once an agency which was completely unregulated, with no judicial connections – not like the CIA and the FBI who had to have a judge order or agreement in order to access personal files. This agency, the NSA, developed a super decryption device underground which still had a terminal on-site, a HUGE machine with immense processing power. (Based on how many computations it could do, it’s been superseeded by your average desktop machine about 2 years ago) .

This machine was created by the best programmers in the world, including a Japanese specialist who had a deformity caused by birth by an iradiated nurse who helped post the Hiroshima bombings. Seeing how this machine was to be used in unethical ways – not just to catch bad guys – this employee turns whistleblower and is subsequently fired and deported, along with a lot of negative information released about him so he would never get hired again. Way to go NSA for tarnishing reputations.

Obviously, he wasn’t happy so he spent some time creating a new type of un-decryptable cypher which he sends to the NSA and throws the entire digital world into chaos. The possibility of having actual private conversations which couldn’t be snooped on by the NSA seemed like a world-war scenario – how could they catch terrorists and drug dealers if they were using un-decryptable communications? How could people save private messages and keep the private from the all-knowing eye of the government.

“Snooping data was a lot like having indiscriminate sex—protection or no protection, sooner or later you caught something.”

Takashi – that was his name – makes his cypher public and on top of it, he encrypts it with his own creation, giving the world a challenge: decrypt it and you can have it. Or he can sell it to the highest bidder.

This is where the main – supermodel thin and super-smart – heroine comes in.

The main character is a female technologist called Susan Fletcher , working for a male head of the NSA (okay two male heads, one is African American, one is Caucasian). So, right from the beginning, I was glad to see the diversity and that it was somewhat ahead of its times. Nonetheless, she is engaged and her husband-to-be is involved in the plot. A few trips through Europe, a political nightmare, and lots of fiery explosions. And some murders too!

It seems that all the male characters lust for her and some of the writing gets repetitive after the first third.

They find that the ring that Takashi wore before he was killed by an NSA assassin had a cypher on it and everyone is trying to find it. They have 9 minutes left until the hackers reach the core of the data and they get the ring info – which is a latin quote meaning who guards the guardians.

“Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Who will guard the guards?”

Apparently this quote without spaces is not the password to stop everything. They manage just in a nick of time to put the latin quote in a Caesar decryption box where they get another clue which is a riddle – the prime difference between the Nagasaki and Hiroshima bombing.

It takes them a while to find that the elements used were two kinds of Uranium and their mass was different by the same number of fingers Takashi was holding up to the person who went to help him when he collapsed. 3.

Phew! they stopped the worm, they restored the firewalls (how if they were deleted by the worm?) and stopped the swarm of hackers getting in (really?)

All in all – the book has about 1/4 which is interesting and the rest is an international chase for clues between multiple interested parties.

“Please accept this humble fax. My love for you is without wax.” (without wax, sans cere, sincere)

2/5 – back to the charity shop