Title: Digital Fortress
Author: Dan Brown
Brown, Dale (1998). Digital Fortress. New York: Thomas Dunne Books
Date Updated: September 11, 2015
In most thrillers, “hardware” consists of big guns, airplanes, military vehicles, and weapons that make things explode. Dan Brown has written a thriller for those of us who like our hardware with disc drives and who rate our heroes by big brainpower rather than big firepower. It’s an Internet user’s spy novel where the good guys and bad guys struggle over secrets somewhat more intellectual than just where the secret formula is hidden – they have to gain understanding of what the secret formula actually is.
In this case, the secret formula is a new means of encryption, capable of changing the balance of international power. Part of the fun is that the book takes the reader along into an understanding of encryption technologies. You’ll find yourself better understanding the political battles over such real-life technologies as the Clipper Chip and PGP (Pretty Good Privacy) software even though the book looks at the issues through the eyes of fiction.
Although there’s enough globehopping in this book for James Bond, the real battleground is cyberspace, because that’s where the “bomb” (or rather, the new encryption algorithm) will explode. Yes, there are a few flaws in the plot if you look too closely, but the cleverness and the sheer fun of it all more than make up for them. There are enough twists and turns to keep you guessing and a lot of high, gee-whiz-level information about encryption, code breaking, and the role they play in international politics. Set aside the whole afternoon and evening for it and have finger food on hand for supper–you may want to read this one straight through.
The National Security Agency (NSA) is one setting for this exciting thriller; the other is Seville, where on page 1 the protagonist, lately dismissed from NSA, drops dead of a supposed heart attack. Though dead, he enjoys a dramaturgical afterlife in the form of his computer program. Digital Fortress creates unbreakable codes, which could render useless NSA’s code-cracking supercomputer called TRANSLTR, but the deceased programmer slyly embossed a decryption key on a ring he wore. Pursuit of this ring is the engine of the plot. NSA cryptology boss Trevor Strathmore dispatches linguist Dave Becker to recover the ring, while he and Becker’s lover, senior code-cracker Susan Fletcher, ponder the vulnerability of TRANSLTR. In Seville, over-the-top chase scenes abound; meanwhile, the critical events unfold at NSA. In a crescendo of murder, infernos, and explosions, it emerges that Strathmore has as agenda that goes beyond breaching Digital Fortress, and Brown’s skill at hinting and concealing Strathmore’s deceit will rivet cyber-minded readers.
In superstar author Dan Brown’s gripping debut, a disgruntled former employee cripples the computer system of the National Security Agency with a seemingly unbreakable algorithmic code. As the computer locks up its circuits trying to decipher the encryption, mathematician Susan Fletcher, the NSA’s resident code expert is called on to expedite the process. Unfortunately, Fletcher soon discovers that, by unlocking the algorithm, the computer will actually expose its precious database to invasion by hackers around the world. When the angry employee who unleashed the code turns up dead, it becomes apparent that larger forces are at work, and the security of the entire nation is at stake. When Dan Brown’s later book, The Da Vinci Code, became one of the most lucrative books of all time, Digital Fortress soon joined it on bestseller lists, and spawned some controversy when residents of Seville, Spain objected to Brown’s unflattering descriptions of their city.