Book: Digital Fortress by Dan Brown

Good thriller, technical aspects not remotely probable

Dan Brown
Digital Fortress
St. Martin's Press, 1998
ISBN: 0-312-33516-4
372 pages

I've read Dan Brown's books The Da Vinci Code, Angels and Demons, and Deception Point and liked them very much. So I expected that Digital Fortress would be another fun and interesting thriller. The thriller-ish aspects all work fine: the plot is inventive and has plenty of twists, and an appropriate number of people go sneaking around in the dark. But, unfortunately for geeky me, the book's premise has to do with computers and it's not at all plausible.

The premise has to do with a secret computer at the National Security Agency. It has three million processors and can break every cipher (code, if you want) in existence by the simple expedient of exhaustively trying every key. I'm no cryptographer and I don't know what's inside the NSA, but any good sysadmin ought to know the basics. And, in regard to the technical matters in the book, there's almost nothing that's remotely likely.

(If you're even a little interested in the real world of code-making and breaking, I recommend Simon Singh's very excellent The Code Book and, if that book is interesting to you, Bruce Schneier's equally excellent but rather geekier Applied Cryptography.)

But if you're not likely to be bothered by a computer doing things it couldn't do, critical data stored without backup, people using cell phones inside the a secret facility, nonsensical claims about viruses and ciphers, the term "pass-key" where "key" is meant, and the use of the word "databank", you might well enjoy Digital Fortress. Oh, and you'd also have to overlook the airy dismissal of the civil-liberties implications of no one being able to keep a secret from the government.

As for the plot of the book, it seems that the world is a more dangerous place than most people know. But the bad guys are kept in check by the NSA's ability to read their encrypted communications. Now it turns out that a brilliant Japanese programmer, Ensei Tankado, who has a grudge against the NSA, has created a cipher that's (wait for it) unbreakable. He plans to sell it to the highest bidder. But he dies in Spain, apparently from a heart attack, before he can do that. So what's the problem then? It seems that it wasn't the actual software that he was going to auction. He had already posted the software publicly to the internet. But he had encrypted it, using its own cipher. And what he intended to auction is the key to decrypt it so that it can be used.

The NSA's second in command supposes that Tankado had a copy of the key written on something in his possession when he died and sends a civilian linguist, David Becker (who has done some contract work for the agency) to collect Tankado's possessions from the Spanish police. At the same time, David Becker's fiancee, Susan Fletcher, the NSA's top cryptanalyst, is called into work on a Saturday to pursue a different effort to get the key. Little do they know that David Becker is just one step ahead of an assassin and that Susan Fletcher's task won't turn out the way she expects. That's not a bad way to start a thriller and, as I said, the plot continues along entertainingly.

I'm not against improbable elements in thriller novels. It's just that in this case, I couldn't manage to keep my disbelief suspended. Alas, I was chuckling though the climactic scene which seemed to me to bear an unfortunate resemblance to a scene in an old Star Trek episode ("The shields can't take much more of this!").

In addition to the pretty numerous inaccuracies regarding computers, there are a few other things that I had problems with: Kanji isn't a language, it's a character set (p. 9). "Moto Guzzi" is written with a space between the words (p. 57). Menboko isn't Japanese for honor. I think Mr Brown wants menboku (p. 72). Shichigosan is a holiday, not a collection of gods (p. 72); Mr Brown means shichi fukujin. "She was proud to complain...." is missing a "too" (p. 91). It should be easy for a brilliant cryptanalyst to figure out what her fiance means when he playfully says that his love is "without wax"; she would know that some messages require translation (p. 109). It may be that it's better to write "email" as "e-mail", but there's no reason to capitalize it when it's in the middle of a sentence (p. 117 ff.). "Bug" meant "glitch" or "problem" long before a moth got stuck in a relay of the Harvard Mark II (not Mark I) computer in 1947 (p. 128). "Jettison" refers to discarding something burdensome, not to eject something as though it were a cork from a champagne bottle (p. 283). "Coolant" generally refers to a liquid that draws off heat by passing through something. Mr Brown wants "cooling fins" (p. 305). There's an extraneous apostrophe in "X-eleven's are down" (p. 341). And the world-war-two-era German Enigma cipher machine weighed about 26 pounds, not 12 tons (p. 349).

Posted: Tue - February 22, 2005 at 09:53   Main   Category: