Dan Brown is the king of novels in the thriller genre. Digital Fortress is one of his earlier novels, published in 1998. The novel has a set of original characters that do not repeat in any of his other works (so no, Robert Langdon isn't in this one) This book explores the theme of government surveillance by a secret government organisation called the NSA (National Security Council). The underlying theme is the question of how much control such organizations should have; is it okay to let them be all powerful, like an all seeing eye (absolute power corrupts absolutely) or should they have limits as well. Like all of Dan Brown's novels, Digital Fortress will make you think, and although the author's (or at least the major characters' stance is clear, you're free to draw your own conclusions.
The novel follows Susan Fletcher, the charming head cryptographer at the NSA, who is called up when an emergency arises. Her boss, Commander Trevor Strathmore, believes that a former NSA computer nerd who defected over ideological disagreements with the NSA has successfully created an unbreakable algorithm (called the Digital Fortress). This super-code, which even the NSA's (top secret) code breaking supercomputer, the TRANSLTR, cannot break through, will leave a gaping hole in the security of the nation and the future of the agency itself if it falls into the wrong hands. And its maker, Tankado is willing to give it away unless the NSA confess to the public what the TRANSLTR can really do (read through any personal information online).
Ensei Tankado was a Japanese citizen, who had been working with the NSA on a work-visa. He originally helped to build TRANSLTR, but when he realized that the NSA could use it to read the e-mails of private citizens, he was outraged, because he believes that this is a violation of human rights since as long as the TRANSLTR is secret, no one will even know how invasive the tabs kept on their privacy is. This leads him to quit his job and threaten Strathmore that he would go public about the NSA's top-secret computer unless they stopped. His actions prove fruitless, and he is captured and deported. This was a widely publicized event and his reputation was ruined. A few months before the beginning of the novel, Tankado had contacted Strathmore, to give him one last chance to go public with TRANSLTR, or he would unleash Digital Fortress to protect people. Having considered it a bluff, Strathmore is now in dire straits as Tankado has uploaded a complimentary version of his algorithm on his website. Hundreds of companies have downloaded it, but everyone is waiting for Tankado to provide the pass code, that will unlock the code.
He now blackmails Strathmore and the NSA, insisting that it is Strathmore's last chance to confess to the public. Even worse, Tankado claims that he has a friend (known only by the code name North Dakota) who will give Digital Fortress away to everyone for free, in case Tankado is apprehended or killed (he won't be naive twice, where's the fun in that?). And then he dies of a heart attack.
While Susan (Strathmore's best cryptographer) tries to piece together what's going on and trying to identify the mysterious N Dakota, the only living person who now has access to the pass-codes that could release Digital Fortress before he finds out that his friend is dead, and her fiancé David Becker is off on his own secret assignment to Spain. He, (a professor of modern languages) is asked to find Tankado's ring, which vanished after he died. The ring, which possibly contains one more copy of the passcodes.
What follows is two desperate chases; one by David across Spain, to find Ensei Tankado's ring, and the other through cyberspace, to locate N Dakota. There is a deeper conspiracy, however, as someone follows David Becker around, killing each person who has come in contact with and seen the ring. Similarly, someone is murdered right in the NSA's headquarters. Someone is playing the game with their own agenda, but who could it be? Tankado, N Dakota, Strathmore, Susan, or David? Or is it a secret third party, with their own secret back story...
Well written and riveting, The Digital Fortress is a must-read book you should definitely add to your private collection.