A Briefing on the Importance of Intelligence (from Cryptonomicon)

Last week, in my technology and policy class, we were talking about whether the Internet has damaged the state sovereignty. I started asking this question in the context of government control and cryptography (this discussion was why I wrote this paper the way I did). About 30 seconds into my argument, the professor stopped me and made to me to explain what cryptography is to the rest of the class.

I tried paraphrasing the description of crypto Randy gives in Crytonomicon. Cryptography connects people, helps them build bridges over which individuals can safely transfer communicate. I like this definition because it gives codes a positive function (facilitating communication) rather than a reactive one (stopping spies). This was the first time I have explained cryptography to a group, and I felt I needed help. That weekend, I went in search of a good quote to explain cryptography. I then posted this to the blog:


Going back to a tangent of our discussion on Wednesday: if anyone is interested in learning more about cryptography, Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon is a good start. It is a history of code in the 20th century (in both the cryptographic and programming senses) wrapped in a WWII treasure hunt in the Pacific Theater, tied into the escapades of an Silicon Valley internet currency start-up in the Philippines in the 1990s.

Weighing in at over 1000 pages paperback, it is a novel worth spending a semester on–it touches on Enigma, public-key encryption, online currency and the importance of telecoms to emerging economies. It also includes 3 love stories and lots of code-breaking.

Here is a quick taste. It is a lightly edited section of the book where Enoch Root (a defrocked Catholic priest who worked as a code breaker for the Allies in WWII) argues for the importance of intelligence using examples from greek mythology to Randy (the grandson of a man Root broke codes with and current co-founder of the high-tech/high-finance start-up):

So insofar as Athena is a goddess of war, what really do we mean by that? Note that her most famous weapon is not her sword but her shield Aegis, and Aegis has a gorgon’s head on it, so that anyone who attacks her is in serious danger of being turned to stone. She’s always described as being calm and majestic, neither of which adjectives anyone ever applied to Ares. […]

Let’s face it, Randy, we’ve all known guys like Ares. The pattern of human behavior that caused the internal mental representation known as Ares to appear in the minds of the ancient Greeks is very much with us today, in the form of terrorists, serial killers, riots, pogroms, and agressive tinhorn dictators who turn out to be military incompetents. And yet for all their stupidity and incompetence, people like that can conquer and control large chunks of the world if they are not resisted. […]

Sometimes it might be other Ares-worshippers, as when Iran and Iraq went to war and no one cared who won. But if Ares-worshippers aren’t going to end up running the whole world, someone needs to do violence to them. This isn’t very nice, but it’s a fact: civilization requires an Aegis. And the only way to fight the bastards off in the end is through intelligence. Cunning. Metis.

Every now and again, I get really excited about internet security. Perhaps the first time was when I interned at EFF. Then when I wrote about great women in security at my first Hopper. Again when I watched a presentation from DefCon on the 2007 Estonian attacks. And it resurfaces every time I reread Cryptonomicon (I’ve done it 3 times so far). I’m not sure if this will be one of my most constant hobbies or if it might grow/blend into a career interest.

I just know I like the way codes make my brain hurt.

Inspirational Quote:

The way you explore complex ecosystems is you just try lots and lots and lots of things, and you hope that everybody who fails fails informatively so that you can at least find a skull on a pikestaff near where you’re going. That’s the phase we’re in now.–Clay Shirky


  1. Great post. Makes we want to reread Cryptonomicon. Found out about this from Enoch Root (or maybe someone who actually exists) on Twitter. user: root2702

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