jpetts writes "If you have an interest in cryptography and spend even a small amount of time looking at the subject on the Internet, you will almost certainly have come across the name Bruce Schneier. His book, Applied Cryptography is widely regarded as the most accessible, and one of the most important books on cryptographic algorithms ever published. Schneier has also published other books, including the less technical Secrets and Lies, an thought-provoking book aimed at getting people to think about the whole of the security landscape, not just cryptography. Now, together with Niels Ferguson, renowned cryptographic expert, and longtime collaborator, another immensely valuable book on security has just appeared." Read on for the rest of jpetts' review.
Schneier is one of the world's foremost experts, not just on cryptography, but also on security. It was as he delved deeper into the security of cryptographic systems that he realised that even though - theoretically at least - cryptography could be made arbitrarily secure, this was one of the more tractable problems in the security puzzle. For this reason, his company, Counterpane repositioned itself as a managed security company, rather than continuing to focus solely on cryptography. This transition was also reflected in his publication of Secrets and Lies (SL), which is very different in tone and focus from Applied Cryptography (AC). So where does Practical Cryptography (PC) fit in, and what does it offer? For me, the answer is that it lies pretty much squarely in the middle of the line reaching from AC to SL.
There is no shortage of products in the cryptography arena, but the vast majority of these attract undisguised scorn from professional cryptographers (at least those who can be bothered to comment on them), and although I am only an amateur in this field, I take it as axiomatic that only peer-reviewed cryptosystems (algorithms, protocols, etc) which have stood the test of time are worth taking even a preliminary peek at. This includes many that are described in AC. However, One of the problems with AC, openly acknowledged by the author, is that it contains essentially no implementation details. Furthermore, the cryptographic field has moved on since its publication, most notably with the adoption of Rijndael as the Advanced Encryption Standard, now a mandated Federal Information Processing Standard.
The source code to AC has been available from pretty much the moment of the book's publication, but one of the problems which faced a would-be cryptographic coder, is how to produce a working cryptographic product based on the routines that one could lay one's hands on. Merely incorporating the source code in a program does not a cryptosystem make: as Schneier points out cryptography is hard. And this is where this new book is invaluable: it tells you in great detail how hard it is, what the hardest parts are, and how you can maximise the return on the effort you may invest in developing cryptographic software.
The book pulls no punches, and does not gloss over any issues relating to implementing cryptographic systems. It deals with all the major components of a practical cryptosystem: the book's major sections are titled Message Security, Key Negotiation, Key Management and Miscellaneous.
Within each of these sections there are several chapters, covering virtually all the salient points imaginable, right down to the fundamentals. For example, the first chapter of the Key Management section deals with the clock. It explains from first principles the need for a clock: "At first glance, [a clock] is a decidedly un-cryptographic primitive, but because the current time is often used in cryptographic systems, we need a reliable clock." It is this sort of attention to particular implementation details that turns PC from a mere recipe book into an invaluable reference and a true cookbook.
Another invaluable feature is the generous use of pseudocode snippets, not only for algorithmic details, such as MACs and block cyphers, but also for higher-level operations like sending and receiving messages.
Ferguson and Schneier are refreshingly frank, too. Where they believe strongly in something, they let you know it. For example, the first paragraph of chapter 23, Standards, contains the statement that "[s]ecurity standards rarely work," while the authors go even further when dealing with X.509 certificates, stating on p.339, "[w]hatever you do, stay away from X.509 certificates. If you need a reason, read  and weep". This candour is refreshing, especially when juxtaposed with the weasel words that so many consultants and software vendors seem to rely on. However, this advice is not just given in curmudgeonly fashion, and when the authors discuss the matter of X.509 in a different context, they add, humorously, "[i]f you must use X.509, you have out condolences."
I am tempted to continue to analyse the book at great length, but to save space I will just highlight some further jewels from this work:
- Implementation issues such as swap files, language-specific memory handling behaviour, caches, etc. are covered in enough detail for you to understand how to do things, and more importantly, how not to do things.
- Randomness, pseudo-randomness and entropy are covered in enough depth for an implementor to avoid pitfalls, and pseudocode examples are given.
- Mathematical topics such as prime numbers, groups and large integer arithmetic are described in excellent detail.
- PKI, its promise, and failure are covered with wit and wisdom.
Is there anything I didn't like about the book? Frankly, no. Some might complain that it is priced too high (it lists at USD50 for the softcover, and USD70 for the hardcover), but it is printed on acid-free paper, and the density of useful advice is such that it outstrips in value many works which cost half the price or less.
If you are interested in crypto, do yourself a favour: buy this book.
You can purchase Practical Cryptography from bn.com. Slashdot welcomes readers' book reviews -- to see your own review here, read the book review guidelines, then visit the submission page.