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Book Review: “Factor Man”

August 14, 2018

At the recommendation of Craig Gentry, I recently read the book “Factor Man” by Matt Ginsberg. This book is about a computer scientist that discovers an efficient algorithm for SAT, which starts off a international game of intrigue involving the FBI, NSA, Chinese spies, Swiss banks, and even some characters we know such as Steven Rudich and Scott Aaronson.
(However there is no mention of Scott’s role as the criminal mastermind behind the great Philadelphia Airport Heist.)

While it’s by no means “great literature”, Factor Man is a fun page-turner. I think it can be a particularly enjoyable read for computer scientists, as it might prompt you to come up with your own scenarios as to how things would play out if someone discovers such an algorithm. Unsurprisingly, the book is not technically perfect. The technical error that annoyed me the most was that the protagonist demonstrates his algorithm by factoring integers of sizes that can in fact be fairly easily factored today (the book refers to factoring 128 or 256 bit numbers as impressive, while 768 bit integers of general form have been factored, see also this page and this paper). If you just imagine that when the book says “n bit” numbers it actually means n byte numbers then this is fine. Network security researchers might also take issue with other points in the book (such as the ability of the protagonist to use gmail and blogspot without being identified by neither the NSA nor Google, as well as using a SAT algorithm to provide a “final security patch” for a product).

Regardless of these technical issues, I recommend reading this book if you’re the type of person that enjoys both computer science and spy thrillers, and I do plan to mention it to students taking my introduction to theoretical CS  course.

2 Comments
  1. Raghu permalink
    August 15, 2018 4:33 am

    In a similar vein, you should check out the movie ‘Travelling Salesman’: the premise is that the protagonists find a linear-time algorithm for SAT. It is not a spy thriller or anything but is much better (still there are some errors …) than how movies handle science in general. I played clips from the movie in my class (to much amusement).

  2. August 16, 2018 2:57 pm

    theres also a old classic with redford with a cryptographic theme. “sneakers” 1992 https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0105435/

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