Book Review: Digital Fortress by Dan Brown
Digital Fortress is Dan Brown’s debut novel from 1998 (reprint May 2004). In it, Susan Fletcher is the NSAs lead cryptographer working in their cryptography division, nick-named Crypto. Crypto’s latest toy is a super computer named TRANSLTR — 3 million processors chained together in a 6-story deep silo cooled with 2 freon generators, capable of cracking any encryption key through the use of brute force1. When rogue programmer Ensei Tankado, a former programmer for Crypto and one of the developers of TRANSLTR, posts news on the Internet of his new encryption method that is uncrackable and puts the only copy of the encryption key up for auction, Susan’s boss, Commander Strathmore, decides to test Tankado’s code against TRANSLTR using a sample of the encryption code posted on the Internet. However, after TRANSLTR fails to return a result after 15 hours (14.75 hours longer than it’s taken to crack any previous keys) Strathmore summons Susan in to help him track down the programmer. The story forks to follow Susan Fletchers fianc , David Becker, as he tracks Tankado in Spain while Susan and Strathmore battle elements both internal and external to Crypto as they try to find the truth behind Tankado’s code.
Unlike Brown’s other books (Angels & Demons, The Da Vinci Code and Deception Point – all written after the initial press of Digital Fortress), I struggled to complete this one. It had some of the fact-based-fiction that he is probably best known for, but I imagine that he hadn’t quite honed his skill when he began this novel. There are only a few places in the story where he segways out of the plot line in order to give us a piece of archaic knowledge, and even then they aren’t tied that heavily in to the plot.
Also, the characters in this novel are very typical – Jabba, the overweight & sarcastic computer technician (think The Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons); Commander Strathmore, the overly ambitious and seemingly altruistic “company” man; Numataka, the evil at-all-costs CEO of a world-wide technology company; Greg Hale, the “buck-the-system” programmer. And while Brown makes a point to flesh out Susan Fletchers character, the rest of the characters remain paper-thin.
Meanwhile, the plot seems only to advance through the luck (dumb or otherwise) of the characters involved – characters too lazy and argumentative to do something that would take 5 minutes, a college professor with the reflexes of a combat hardened Navy Seal, an assassin who can hit his mark from across a park unless a main character is his target, etc., etc., etc.
Unfortunately, the biggest disappointment in this novel isn’t any of the above, it’s the premise itself. Supposedly, TRANSLTR operates by filtering all of the communication that is sent over the Internet and running it through the super computer. This is not only impossible but also a complete misrepresentation of the Internet. The Internet is built on a model of distributed networking. Every new computer that logs on to the internet becomes a part of that network. This enables (I’m overly simplifying here) a message to get from point A to point B using any available route, or even multiple routes if the message is large enough. If one route goes offline, there are hundreds of other ways to route the data to its final destination. To propose that all routes lead to TRANSLTR would mean that every message, no matter the origin nor destination, would first have to travel to the NSA and through TRANSLTR. This would result in such a bottleneck of data as millions upon millions of bits of information tried to enter TRANSLTR at once that the Internet would crawl to a stop.
Finally, if there’s one thing that bugs me the most, whether in a book or a movie, it’s the use of what I like to call “the Hollywood OS” – those magical scenes where the author pens an event that relies on the reader/viewer to be familiar enough with computers to think that they can do anything but not familiar enough to realize that they can’t do “that”. (For example: the scene in Boiler Room where one of the characters puts a floppy disk in a computer causing a dialog to pop up reading “Copying Hard Drive to A:”, as if an entire hard drive could fit onto a single floppy disk.) In the case of Digital Fortress, there are several instances where Brown assumes the worst in his reader and uses impossible or just plain goofy technology to further the plot. For instance, in the computer lab within Crypto, Brown writes that each computer is locked using a 5 digit PIN. I doubt that the NSA, the keeper of all of the digital secrets of the US government would stop at 5 digits when protecting TRANSLTR, their supposed most expensive and secret toy. (In comparison, the corporate standard for network passwords is at least 8 characters, alphanumeric with at least one letter and one number.) Later on, there is a scene in which one of the characters has installed a special piece of hardware onto the keyboards of the computers in the lab that records the keystrokes of everyone in order to steal their PIN. While such keystroke loggers do exist, I think it would be rather silly of the NSA to overlook this vulnerability in their operating system of choice. Still further on, the climactic scene in the NSA’s data center revolves around the availability of a set of firewalls that are failing in sequence. Each firewall is represented on a large overhead screen by a set of concentric rings, while inbound “hackers” attempting to get through the failing system are represented as black lines around the edge of the circles, much like (as Brown himself notes) sperm around an egg. The NSA agents watch helplessly as their firewall is systematically disected, all the while insiting that it’s too late to save any of the data. Any data center technician will tell you that when all else fails and the integrity of your network is about to be compromised you always have an ace in the hole – just pull the plug.
Since we’re on the topic of the data center scene, I found it particularly annoying that during this huge climax, with computer technicians counting down the minutes (and later on the seconds) left until security breach, the banter among the main characters is as wordy as ever, with huge dialogs taking place within a matter of seconds. At other times, the story feels rushed with characters completing some feat or another in record time.
Obviously, I was not at all impressed with the story. It was one of those books that I had to force myself to finish, the only reason for finishing it all was because I had already vested so much time into it in the first place. The last 20 pages were particularly grueling. Compared to his other books, this was a big let down. If you want to read the best part of the novel, the most Dan Brown part so to speak, flip to the very end of the book where Brown explains the origin of the word “sincerely”. That is about the only thing that I will take away from this book.
1 Brute force refers to a method of hacking that attempts to crack a password or encryption key by trial-and-error, continuously trying new alphanumeric combinations until a match is found. It is generally thought that trying to crack a 128-bit encryption key using brute force, even with a specialized computer, would take 10^19 years to crack)
* This post was originally published on November 22, 2004 at http://www.csb7.com/whyblogwhy/index.php/2004/11/22/book-review-digital-fortress-by-dan-brown/