The Boston Diaries

The ongoing saga of a programmer who doesn't live in Boston, nor does he even like Boston, but yet named his weblog/journal “The Boston Diaries.”

Go figure.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

If this is realistic, I'd hate to see what an unrealistic techno-thriller would be.

Digital Fortess is the best and most realistic techno-thriller to reach the market in years … A chilling thrill a minute.”

–The Midwest Book Review

My friend Bunny had mentioned reading Digital Fortress and finding it quite good. I had my doubts, given my feelings towards Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code but I said I would read the book (which I borrowed from Bunny) and take notes.

Well, I'm about a quarter the way through the book and boy, do I have notes. Aside from the poor writing style, radical shifting of viewpoint, choppy sentances and short chapters (I'm on page 123, in which Chapter 29 starts), I'm alternating between laughter and screaming at the book.

Often times simultaneously.

His recounting of recent computer history is anywhere from five years too early (widespread interest in public key cryptography started in 1992 with the release of Phil Zimmerman's PGP and not in 1987) to nearly 15 years (he has the public Internet as being available in the early 80s when it was 1994 when the commercial restrictions were lifted and the Internet because publically available on a national scale) and at the same time, he has the NSA with quantum computing, which is still in its infancy (and speaking of the NSA, one of his major characters supposedly never heard of the agency even though it was outted in 1982's The Puzzle Palace—sheesh!).

Then there's the little fact that Dan Brown has absolutely no clue about programming. The NSA's prize computer, TRANSLTR, a custom built machine with 3,000,000 processors to brute force encrypted messages, has a virus checker! As if! There's no way a virus could run on the thing unless it was specifically written for the computer and this thing doesn't officially “exist.” Even if the thing was built using off-the-shelf processors like the Intel Pentium, a Windows based virus wouldn't get very far, not finding Windows on the machine (I suppose—it's never stated what operating system it runs, but I can't see Windows scaling to a 3,000,000 processor system).

Then there's the email tracer a main character uses to track where an email messages finally arrives. I'm sorry, but if I received such an email it wouldn't “automatically” detect the IP address and scurry back to the NSA without a trace; my email client doesn't execute anything coming in from email (doesn't even understand HTML) and there's certainly nothing in SMTP that even mandates a return receipt.

Sorry Dan.

And the whole premise of the book, that the NSA's little computer TRANSLTR can't crack a message because of a newly found “unbreakable” encryption system, is bogus because there already exists such an ecryption system! Obviously Dan Brown never heard of one-time pads (or if he did, ignored them outright).

A one-time pad where you generate purely random data (preferably from some external source like neutron decay or static from a dead television) and use as many bits of said random data as the encryption key as there are bits in the messsage. What you get out is a stream of random data (obviously the recipient has to have the randomly generated key to decrypt the message but that's inherent in all non-public key encryption systems).

So I'm having fun with this book, taking notes in order to rip it apart.

More on this when I finish.

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