Digital Fortress by Dan Brown (Corgi, 2004)

You know, I got exceptionally lucky. My [first] book [Digital Fortress] sold in twenty days. The first editor who saw it, bought it. Part of it had to do with the fact that it was an exceptionally commercial topic at that time. That being national security and civilian privacy. Electronic code breaking. E-mail ... National security Agency. It was a piece of fiction that had actual ties to the real world. -- Dan Brown

Originally published by St Martins Press in 1998, Digital Fortress was published by Corgi in 2004, following the unexpected runaway success of The Da Vinci Code.

Dan Brown only has one plot, the dialogue is awful, nevertheless his books have been a runaway success.

Following the success of The Da Vinci Code, I can walk into any bookstore and see all of his books up there with the bestsellers, with The Da Vinci Code usually at No 1.

As I said only one plot. A Robert Langdon, professorial-style clone accompanied by a stunning sexually attractive female sidekick. With variations, the stunning sexually attractive sidekick, is sometimes the hero, with the Robert Langdon clone as sidekick. Digital Fortress falls into the latter category, with Susan Fletcher, NSA star cryptographer as heroine and David Becker, Georgetown professor of languages as her sidekick.

True to form, he is tall, athletic and enthralls his female students. As is Susan Fletcher, nice legs, stunning, with full firm breasts.

At the start we will have some intellectual, preferably oriental, foreign type, killed in mysterious circumstances, but leaving behind some cryptic clue to solve.

One or other of our heroes will get an early morning phone call to come immediately to solve the problem. They are expected to drop everything.

Initial action will be at a high-tech or culturally significant location. In Angels and Demons it was CERN, then the Vatican. In Digital Fortress it is NSA.

NSA, National Security Agency, is a spooks agency that few have heard of. Its brief is to encrypt US communications to deter eavesdroppers, and to break those of the enemy.

There will be a sinister assassin, who is markedly different from his fellow human beings, and yet at the same time, has the ability to merge into the shadows where he remains unnoticed.

Behind it all, will be a sinister Professor Moriarty-type figure who manages to remain undetected and unsuspected.

Once all these elements have fallen into place, you have a Dan Brown novel. All that remains is to flesh out the details. This is your role as reader, for which you pay the privilege through purchasing the novel.

At the core of NSA, and at the core of the novel Digital Fortress is TRANSLTR, a huge number crunching colossus of a computer, that can crack seemingly impossible codes within minutes by sheer brute force number crunching, only it has a problem, it has been fed an unbreakable code.

A problem for Dan Brown too. Hit on the right algorithm, and most 'unbreakable' codes become crackable, but by sheer brute force. Yeah, right.

That's not the only clanger Dan Brown drops at the start of Digital Fortress. He talks of everyone moving to e-mail as much more difficult to eavesdrop upon. Well actually, it's the exact opposite.

Moving to digital communication does create a problem, in that tapping a phone call is no longer as simple as hooking up a wire, but, nothing could be easier than scanning millions if not billions of e-mails. The entire enterprise can be automated with computers, and who better to do it than NSA. Especially if we compare it with the old days of listening in on calls, steaming open the mail.

For the NSA, and other eavesdroppers, nothing could have been better than e-mail and the Internet.

The problems was when everyone cottoned on to how simple it was to monitor net communications and started using hard encryption and anonymous remailers.

It wasn't public key encryption that made the task of NSA harder, it was that hard encryption was suddenly in the realm of ordinary users.

The beauty of a package such as PGP, is that it used hard encryption, handled the key management for the user, all in a very easy to use software package. And it was free to download and use if you knew where to get it from.

No small wonder that Phil Zimmerman, developer of PGP, felt a lot of heat from the Feds, whilst at the same time becoming a cult folk hero.

Dan Brown also drops yet another clanger when he confuses encryption algorithms, eg IDEA, with PGP. PGP, Pretty Good Privacy, is the software package which implements these algorithms.

But then, Digital Fortress, is at the end of the day, only a novel.

Public key encryption reappears in The Da Vinci Code. By which time, Dan Brown's understanding of the subject does seem to have improved somewhat.

Codes and encryption are not the same, although the man in the street tends to use the terminology interchangeably.

Encryption, or cyphers, are where we scramble an original 'plaintext' message, into meaningless gobbledygook, or 'cyphertext'. We need to know both the key and the algorithm to recover the original plaintext. Or we can in desperation try brute force number crunching to try every possible answer. Not practicable for large keys. The definition of large depends upon the computing power and time available.

Codes are where we embed some meaning in a piece of text, although it may also involve a simple cypher as well. We see several example of codes in The Da Vinci Code.

Digital Fortress is, like Deception Point, an average run-off-the-mill novel. The same variants of the Dan Brown plot are regurgitated. The only difference is in the details.

Opening clangers excepted, Dan Brown does a fairly good job of weaving a tale around encryption. He also does what he excelled at in The Da Vinci Code, merging fact with fiction so it becomes impossible to differentiate one from the other. Another similarity with The Da Vinci Code, is the convoluted plot, with twists and tuns down hitherto unnoticed side alleys.

Overall, Dan Brown manages to elevate Digital Fortress to an above average run-off-the-mill thriller.

Written before the tragedy of 9-11, Digital Fortress poses the dilemma of eavesdropping by the state and the loss of personal liberty and freedom and privacy of the individual. Who watches the guardians?

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes.

In the immediate aftermath of publication, Digital Fortress attracted criticism along the lines of 'I can't believe you're supporting the National Security Agency it's basically Brave New World.' In the immediate aftermath of 9-11, the cry was 'I don't care what the NSA needs. If they want to put a streaming video in my bedroom, that's fine. Whatever they need to stop this, that's fine.' Now people have woken up to the extent to which they were lied to, a few are questioning 'Have we gone too far?'

Post-9-11, the state has used 9-11 and the pseudo-war on terrorism to massively erode civil liberties. Would the impossibility of monitoring individuals have increased the risk of 9-11, or looking at it it from a different angle, would an all-knowing state have been able to prevent 9-11?

The state had more than enough information to prevent 9-11. Lack of information was not what caused 9-11, it was the failure of the political system to act that allowed 9-11 to happen.

Readers of Angels and Demons and The Da Vinci Code are in for a grave disappointment. Angels and Demons and The Da Vinci Code have the same underlying Dan Brown plot, but what makes these two novels an interesting read, are the details Dan Brown uses to flesh out his basic plot.

The only reason Digital Fortress and Deception Point have made it into the bestsellers lists, is because readers have been hooked by Angels and Demons and The Da Vinci Code and are eager for more.

Books by Dan Brown to date: Digital Fortress (1998), Angels and Demons (2000), Deception Point (2001), The Da Vinci Code (2003).

Books Worth Reading
(c) Keith Parkins 2004 -- December 2004 rev 0