I plan to publish my book Cybertwists some time in 2017. It will contain simple explanations of the main concepts behind cybersecurity and hacking, backed up with anecdotes. This website presents the draft version of the first chapter of the book, which deals with encryption. Further chapters will cover such topics as networks, malware, software vulnerabilities, physical security and cyberwar.
You can either read the first chapter sequentially, starting with the chapter introduction, or you can dip straight in to find out about how the Sicilian and Calabrian Mafias attempted to encode their messages; about the encryption used by the Russians, Germans and Americans during the Second World War; about how Al-Qaeda tried and failed to hide their strategic plans; about modern encryption, how the National Security Agency have tried to weaken it and various governments have tried to ban it; or about the quantum encryption that will be used in the future.
I decided to start writing Cybertwists after listening to the radio news on my drive home. On that particular day, the first three headlines all concerned cybersecurity and hacking: data theft from a large corporation, a breach of the German government network and a political discussion about data retention. I was struck by the fact that, while the news items that followed did a good job of covering the social, economic and political aspects of the three stories, none of them made any attempt to explain any of the details of what had actually happened.
As a cybersecurity expert, I was able to join up many of the dots and make a mental note to research the stories in more detail on the Internet once I got home. But did a general news audience not deserve a bit better? Did we as a profession not owe society an account of our work that went into enough detail to explain the central concepts without getting so technical that the reader would have to become an expert to follow the discussion? As I considered how fascinating much of the material was and surmised that many non-specialist readers would greatly enjoy learning more about it, the idea of writing a book to close the gap became more and more alluring.
Most existing content about cybersecurity seems to fall into two main categories. On the one hand are books and websites that aim to teach readers either to hack or to protect themselves from hackers. These necessarily go into a lot of deep technical detail and can be fairly inaccessible even to people who work in other areas of information technology. Some of them even revel in expressing things in a way that only hacker culture insiders will be able to follow. On the other hand is literature that focuses on the ramifications of computer crime without making any attempt to describe what it actually entails. This category includes both general news articles like the ones discussed above and books that cover such topics as the sociology of the “lulz”.
Cybertwists conforms to neither of these genres, but sits somewhere in between them. It presumes no existing knowledge of computing and covers as many technical details as necessary but as few as possible to allow the general reader to grasp the main ideas behind cybersecurity and hacking. It may well be the case that this will put him or her in a position to take an informed stance on issues that play in increasingly important role in our world. Although the book is unambiguously aimed at the non-specialist, it is also likely to be a useful read for the information technology professional with a focus in other areas.
All this, however, is secondary. The reason I am writing Cybertwists – and the reason I strongly encourage you to read it – is that cybersecurity and hacking, at the level I intend to explain them, are fascinating topics and well worth exploring further. This applies both to the general concepts and to the many anecdotes I use to illustrate them.
A note on language
As a native speaker of British English writing for an international audience, I am faced with the dilemma of how best to cater for the variety of linguistic standards to which my readers will be accustomed. I strongly considered producing a U.S. version of Cybertwists, but finally scrapped the idea because I want the book to bear my voice. At the end of the day, I would rather sound like a British guy than like a British guy trying his best to sound American but failing. The spellings and grammar, then, are located firmly to the east of the Atlantic. At the same time, though, I have tried my best to avoid the more arcane examples of what I believe is referred to as “Britspeak”. My aim is to avoid any British usage that might hamper comprehension for the American reader. This is still the draft version and I am very grateful for any feedback about whether I have achieved this goal.
Some of the linked content from other sites is in languages other than English. This obviously has the drawback of excluding a majority of readers. I have nevertheless decided to retain the links because it seemed important to acknowledge the most original sources. The alternative would have been to reference other English-language websites trying to explain them, which after all is what I am aiming to do myself. I hope that in many cases an automatic translation will enable readers who are interested in exploring the sources to understand the foreign-language content satisfactorily.
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