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Book review: ‘The Story of Codes’ by Stephen Pincock and Mark Frary

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The long history of one of today’s most burning technical challenges.

When it comes to the whole subject of encryption, cyphers and codes it’s tempting to think that we’re dealing with a thoroughly modern phenomenon, a function of living in the wireless digital age. While the authors of ‘The Story of Codes’ (Modern Books, £19.95, ISBN 9781911130895) concede the reasonableness of the assumption in the first line of the book – “the very air around us hums with encryption” – they are quick to point out that there is nothing new under the Sun. According to Stephen Pincock and Mark Frary, we can trace the roots of our encoded secrecy back four millennia.

Safeguarding the confidentiality of our communications plays such a fundamental role in our digital finance, social media and mobile comms world that its entirely likely one of the first real-world applications for quantum computing will be to ensure that no-one can digitally eavesdrop on our unsolicited broadcasts about today’s cappuccino.

While this may seem trivial, there is the real issue of the vulnerability of all those financial, political and military communiqués. Which makes quantum-level indecipherability, based on the current limits of mathematics, one of the priorities of our time. All of which is tackled with real insight at the end of the book.

But what’s so much more interesting is what comes before. We know there’s all this clever stuff happening today, but where did it all start? After a fascinating few paragraphs of informed conjecture dealing with how the ancient Egyptians modified hieroglyphs to protect trade secrets about pottery glazes, we plunge straight into the juicy stuff in which no less an historical personage than Julius Caesar is dispatching encoded military orders written in substitution cypher. Less convincing is the Greeks’ experimentation in steganography that involved tattooing encoded messages on slaves’ heads and waiting for their hair to grow.

In Britain, the downfall of Mary Queen of Scots was brought about by the decryption of her letters by codebreaker Thomas Phelippes, an expert in frequency analysis, nomenclators and nulls. Meanwhile the Kama Sutra, say the authors, encourages ‘developing the skills of cryptography and cryptanalysis’. There are bits of the Bible that can’t readily be understood without a knowledge of the Abtash cipher while, looking further forward, airport novels such as 'The Da Vinci Code' present a mix of riddles, codes and cyphers to entertain us.

We had Elgar’s Enigma Variations and the Enigma wartime cipher, the Zodiac killer and the Navajo Code, all leading up to the electronic era where one of the main purposes of all this powerful digital encryption is to protect the citizenry from cyber crime. Which brings the authors up to the very modern ethical conundrum of balancing national security interests against the legally enshrined rights to individual privacy. Entertaining and intelligent, ‘The Story of Codes’ gives us an authoritative insight into an ever-fascinating subject.

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