Digital Fortress

Author Brown, Dan
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Review

Dan Brown’s limited competence as a writer is of course well known—somewhat awkward prose, obnoxiously blatant Mary Sue (or ‘Gary Stu’ if you prefer), and so on. Digital Fortress, however, holds a special place in my heart, as this is where he places ignorance and sloppiness in an area where I have some knowledge front and centre.

We can quickly gloss over such errors as conflating bits and bytes. Much more interesting is the fact that a concept central to the plot is the so-called Bergofsky principle, which according to Brown states that if a computer tried enough keys, it was mathematically guaranteed to find the right one. What makes this so interesting is that a man named Gilbert Vernam invented a technique, called the One-time Pad (or Vernam One-time Pad), which has been proven mathematically impossible to break. This mathematically perfect cryptosystem is not a novel and obscure thing, but a well-known system in practical use that was invented in 1917. (Its usefulness is limited, however, because it is very awkward to use.) There are many other technical errors, but this one is the most glaring and the most amusing, because the plot revolves around the question of “What if this cryptosystem is practically unbreakable?”, when in fact the world has dealt with that reality for almost a century.

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