Book Review: The Woman Who Smashed Codes

Posted on by Ben Rothke

One of the challenges of working for the NSA, is that employees don’t have the freedom to share what they do with the professional community at large. Whether it is blogging, writing articles, participating in industry meetings or the like, NSA employees simply can’t do that. It’s not just the NSA, it pretty much every security agency of most countries.

While many people think that public-key cryptography was created by Rivest, Shamir and Adleman (RSA), it was actually created a few years earlier by James Ellis, Clifford Cocks and Malcolm Williamson of the GCHQ, the UK equivalent of the NSA. The key difference is that Rivest, Shamir and Adleman were at MIT and keen to publish their findings. While Ellis, Cocks and Williamson were forbidden to share this outside of the GCHQ.

In The Woman Who Smashed Codes: A True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine Who Outwitted America's Enemies (Dey Street Books 978-0062430489), author Jason Fagone tells the fascinating story of Elizebeth Smith Friedman; one of the most unfamiliar names in the world of information security, but one of the most important personalities. While she is known as the wife of noted cryptographer William Friedman, her story is one that deserves to be told, given her myriad invaluable contributions to the field.

Elizebeth was a poet who wanted to be a librarian. After she graduated college, she had a chance meeting with George Fabyan, an eccentric millionaire who created Riverbank Laboratories, a private research laboratory. It was at Riverbank where modern cryptography was created via the Friedman’s. And it was there that the Friedman’s became some of the most important cryptographers in history.

Fagone is a superb writer and has created a fascinating tale of a woman who brought down Prohibition-era smugglers, Nazi’s, counterfeiters, gangsters and more. Her career intersected with many other notables, and throughout the book, Fagone weaves a rich history of espionage, code breaking, and more.

The FBI was one of the many beneficiaries of her code breaking skills. To which J. Edgar Hoover took much of the credit and recognition for Elizebeth’s ground-breaking work. At the time, she was US Coast Guard employee who did the actual codebreaking. But it was Hoover’s FBI that got all the glory.

Elizebeth Friedman was an extraordinary person whose story needs to be told. Her contributions to the world of cryptography have been for the most part forgotten until now. In The Woman Who Smashed Codes, Jason Fagone has written one of the most important computer security biographies to date. The is an important book for anyone who wants to understand the history of the field, and one of its most important and influential personalities. 

Ben Rothke

Senior Information Security Manager, Tapad

Blogs posted to the website are intended for educational purposes only and do not replace independent professional judgment. Statements of fact and opinions expressed are those of the blog author individually and, unless expressly stated to the contrary, are not the opinion or position of RSA Conference™, or any other co-sponsors. RSA Conference does not endorse or approve, and assumes no responsibility for, the content, accuracy or completeness of the information presented in this blog.

Share With Your Community

Related Blogs