The best books about cryptography and how we secure the digital world

Keith M. Martin Author Of Cryptography: The Key to Digital Security, How It Works, and Why It Matters
By Keith M. Martin

Who am I?

I am a cryptography professor, which sadly doesn’t mean I spend my time breaking secret messages (at least not every day). I first studied cryptography simply because it was fun and interesting. It still is – but today it is unbelievably important, underpinning the security of almost everything we do in the digital world. I believe that developing a notion of 'cyber common sense’ is a vital life skill since so much of what we do is digital. A basic understanding of cryptography and its societal impact provides a superb foundation for making sense of digital security, so I’ve selected some of my favourite reads to get you started.

I wrote...

Cryptography: The Key to Digital Security, How It Works, and Why It Matters

By Keith M. Martin,

Book cover of Cryptography: The Key to Digital Security, How It Works, and Why It Matters

What is my book about?

Cryptography plays a critical role in our everyday lives. It underpins the security of our mobile phone calls, credit card payments, web searches, internet messaging, and cryptocurrencies—in short, everything we do online. Broadly defined as a set of tools for establishing security cyberspace, cryptography enables us to protect and share our information. Understanding the basics of cryptography is the key to recognizing the significance of the security technologies we encounter every day, which will then help us respond to them. In clear, concise writing, information security expert Keith Martin answers all these questions and more, revealing the many crucial ways we all depend on cryptographic technology. Essential reading for anyone with a password, Cryptography offers a profound perspective on personal security, online and off.

The books I picked & why

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The Code Book: The Science of Secrecy from Ancient Egypt to Quantum Cryptography

By Simon Singh,

Book cover of The Code Book: The Science of Secrecy from Ancient Egypt to Quantum Cryptography

Why this book?

First and foremost, The Code Book is a gripping read. It revisits some of the most influential moments in history when cryptography played a role in changing the world. I first read this book as a junior cryptographic researcher and it was the moment I realized that the subject I was studying was not just interesting from a professional standpoint, but was important for the whole world. I also loved that Simon Singh could take complicated technical concepts and convey them to a general audience. More than two decades later, cryptography is dramatically more important than it was when The Code Book was written. I spend much of my professional life communicating this to all sorts of different audiences, and can trace part of my inspiration back to this book.

Crypto: How the Code Rebels Beat the Government--Saving Privacy in the Digital Age

By Steven Levy,

Book cover of Crypto: How the Code Rebels Beat the Government--Saving Privacy in the Digital Age

Why this book?

I always knew cryptography was political, but I had no idea how political until I read this book. Seeing the subject I am so fascinated by through the words of a political journalist was truly eye-opening. Steven Levy navigates a deeply fascinating period in modern technological history – the late twentieth-century battles between governments trying to maintain power and control over communications, and technologists who saw the fledgling internet as an opportunity to build a new world. Cryptography, which protects digital communications, sat plum on the frontline between these two communities, hence battles over cryptography turned into so-called 'crypto wars’ (although nobody died). Nobody who read this book was surprised with much that Edward Snowden had to say to the world in 2013 – Snowden was just reportage of the latest chapter in the same ongoing conflict.

Cryptography: A Very Short Introduction

By Fred Piper, Sean Murphy,

Book cover of Cryptography: A Very Short Introduction

Why this book?

This is a very short (of course!) introduction to cryptography, but it is masterful in its concise conveyance of all that really matters on this topic. I have no hesitation in admitting a close relationship with both authors, but most particularly Fred Piper, who was my doctoral supervisor. Fred has been a mentor throughout my professional life, and this book presents his take on the crucial components of modern cryptography, written for a general audience. I’ve seen this book in airport bookshops and thought `how cool – you can buy a book on cryptography that is written so well you could read it on a plane!’ I have now written two books about cryptography that are less short, and might need longer plane journeys, but Cryptography: A Very Short Introduction remains an inspiration to me.

The Cuckoo's Egg: Tracking a Spy Through the Maze of Computer Espionage

By Clifford Stoll,

Book cover of The Cuckoo's Egg: Tracking a Spy Through the Maze of Computer Espionage

Why this book?

Anyone interested in digital security simply has to read this book. It isn’t really a book about cryptography, although cryptography plays a minor role. This is simply a wonderfully-told honest tale about someone ahead of their time who decided to investigate an anomaly they noticed on a computer system they were responsible for in the 1980s. Through bloody-minded perseverance, Stoll unraveled something that foretold much of what has happened since – the extraordinary complexity and connectivity of modern computers and the ramifications that events somewhere in the network can have elsewhere. Such a tale would probably be dull and technical if written today. But mapped into the more naïve and fledging cyberspace of the 1980s, this is an absolute page-turner. 

Bitcoin: The Future of Money?

By Dominic Frisby,

Book cover of Bitcoin: The Future of Money?

Why this book?

Most digital technologies crucially rely on cryptography for their security, but few are entirely built from cryptography. Bitcoin is – simply – cryptography. The idea that money can be created from cryptography is a little bit mind-blowing, even for a cryptographer like myself. Dominic Frisby wrote one of the first, and finest, books about the leading cryptocurrency Bitcoin. He explores not just the incredible story of the founding of Bitcoin, but also gives an accessible explanation of how it works and what role it might play in our wider financial system. If you have let the term 'cryptocurrency’ wash over you but remain just a tiny bit curious, this book is your best route towards enlightenment. Whether you then decide to invest in any cryptocurrency is another matter altogether!

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