Computing Reviews

Crypto dictionary: 500 tasty tidbits for the curious cryptographer
Aumasson J., No Starch Press, San Francisco, CA, 2021. 160 pp. Type: Book
Date Reviewed: 08/25/21

Why do we need a dictionary when we have the Internet?

Dictionary: A worthless book now that the Internet exists.

This Crypto dictionary entry might seem to indicate the author sees no need for his own work. But Crypto dictionary is not your run-of-the-mill glossary of technical terms. Written for novices as well as experts, it is not meant to be a real dictionary or a work just for professional cryptographers or mathematicians. Instead, it is a bit of an Ambrose Bierce-like Devil’s dictionary for cryptographers while retaining technical accuracy.

The goal of the dictionary is to briefly describe important concepts and ideas in cryptography, including those from current research. Rather than a scholarly reference book, the author presents a coffee table book format that “intends to expose the richness of cryptography, including its exotic and underappreciated corners ... and be a gateway to a better appreciation of the science of secrecy,” while “covering at least 75 percent of cryptography’s realm.”

Some entries are humorous:

Bitcoin: An experiment that went out of control, for better or worse.

But most entries are brief definitions of cryptographic concepts, ideas, and protocols. The level of detail and depth of coverage of the definitions vary on purpose, and there is no intention to give exact descriptions of the various protocols. There is also no intent to be encyclopedic in coverage, so some protocols and topics are missing. For example, Internet protocol security (IPsec) has an entry, but not Internet key exchange (IKE). Individuals and software components are not included. And the entries are not self-inclusive or comprehensive; sometimes terms appear that are not defined in their own entry or further discussed. Some cryptocurrency topics are included, but as the author notes, “many of the terms specific to blockchain applications are missing.”

While all of this might make it seem like this slim volume isn’t very useful, nothing could be further from the truth. I found it fascinating. As the author is a well-experienced cryptographic researcher and practitioner, the entries are technically sound and well chosen. Established and nontrivial cryptographic topics are covered, as well as some from current research.

The book can be read cover-to-cover, or browsed, or used to selectively follow a topic or term. However one reads the book, it is best done with easy access to the Internet, for following up on details or more complete information. “Tasty” or not, though, by my count there only appear to be 498 “tidbits” in the dictionary.

A somewhat curious seven-page “Index of Terms” ends the book. It’s curious both for what it does and doesn’t contain, and for its placement. It’s really a table of contents, listing each entry and the entry’s page. Each item in the index has exactly one page reference listed. Since the entries in this “index” and the entries in the book are in alphabetic order, this is not needed or terribly useful. No usages or references on other pages in the dictionary are listed, so there is no way to find all the places a subject is mentioned or applicable. A real and complete index would be a welcome update.

Crypto dictionary well meets its aim of being “an entertaining read for everyone, from high school students and novice engineers to PhDs and retired researchers.” Readers can indeed “open the book at a random page and discover a yet unknown notion.” Future updates and editions are planned and would be welcome.

More reviews about this item: Amazon

Reviewer:  Andrew R. Huber Review #: CR147340

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