The Woman Who Smashed Codes by Jason Fagone

The Woman Who Smashed Codes: A True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine who Outwitted America's EnemiesThe Woman Who Smashed Codes: A True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine who Outwitted America’s Enemies by Jason Fagone
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This fascinating biography of one of America’s great woman sheds more light on a history little known to most Americans. Elizebeth Friedman was a cryptanalyst who helped the government chase smugglers during Prohibition and Nazis during WWII. The author has obviously dug deeply into archives to piece together her life. The author creditably relates the subject’s experience with discrimination in employment, unequal pay, and sexual harassment. Some things never change – or at least change all too slowly.

The book is not without its problems, though. For one thing, much of it is not new. It borrows heavily from The Codebreakers: The Comprehensive History of Secret Communication from Ancient Times to the Internet by David Kahn, among other sources. The author, who admits he knows little about cryptography, gets many things flat out wrong. Some of his work is just sloppy. For example, on P. 127 he copies the sentence from Elizebeth’s note to her husband wrong, omitting the final I in “mari.” Even my high school French taught me that husband is mari, not mar (not to mention you can see the I in the note). He also calls that note a Railfence cipher, but it is really just plaintext written in an alternating columnar route. I won’t bother to explain a Railfence; look it up in Wikipedia if you want to know. He repeats both of those errors later on, too. On p. 136 he writes the ciphertext word for “prospects” wrong, adding a letter. His cryptographic definitions at the beginning are misleading at best, just plain wrong in other spots. As a forty-year member of the American Cryptogram Association I am more sensitive to those issues than others, I’ll admit, but the serious crypto fan will have to grit his teeth in places.

Another problematic issue is the suggestion throughout the book, especially at the end, that E. Friedman never got her due, often overshadowed in government circles and even the press by her husband William. This is true to some extent, but is also misleading. First of all, William was, and is widely recognized as, the superior cryptographer of the two (Purple and SIGABA are each alone more significant than her entire body of work). Second, she often got more public notice than he did, especially when she was testifying against rumrunners and others. Reporters and the public alike were much entranced by the “attractive girl cryptographer.” She’s been the subject of much press in recent decades, too, including in Kahn’s seminal book, although much of it does not include her wartime feats which this author brings to light very well. Lastly, the very nature of cryptanalysis (the breaking of codes and ciphers) is a secret business and both Friedmans were often dismayed at any publicity about their craft. I think the author and women’s rights advocates are more upset than either Friedman ever was about her relative anonymity. The Friedmans were products of their time and she was very much one of the most liberated and professionally fulfilled women of her day.

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