If the world were a Tom Clancy novel, I'd know just what to think of Ruthless.com, a techno-thriller published late last year that was "created," if not actually written, by the famous author. I'd have to conclude that such a committee-written, book-like product had been designed by nefarious operatives in the corridors of power to bolster our government's current policy of trying to slow the spread of encryption technology–that is, an individual's ability to encode communications and data so securely that no one else, including the government, can read them
From a Clancyworld perspective–a perspective I know well, having maintained a secret Clancy habit during the last 15 years–there's lots of evidence that Ruthless.com, nominally based on a computer game of the same name, is more propaganda piece than novel. Take this passage from the back cover copy: "Encryption technology keeps the codes for the world's security and communications systems top secret. The profit potential is huge–but deregulating this state-of-the-art technology for export could put a back-door key in the front pocket of spies and terrorists around the world."
Whoa! It's true that the National Security Agency and the Federal Bureau of Investigation continue to argue that restricting export of encryption products, such as Phil Zimmerman's Pretty Good Privacy software, is necessary to keep terrorists and criminals from thwarting government wiretaps and other surveillance measures.
Let's leave aside for the moment the fact that such an argument is not particularly convincing, relevant, or to the point. The claim that export somehow will lead to compromised encryption technology is a new notion–and one that's frequently repeated, yet never explained, throughout Ruthless.com.
It's also flatly bogus: Even if it were true that a terrorist with any encryption software product in his hands could figure out a way to install "a back-door key," there's no way he could install it in everybody else's copies of the software. Nor does exporting the product make it any easier to crack it; there's nothing magical about our national borders that makes encryption software weaker or less secure when it's exported. Yet this claim is made several times and presented as if it were obviously true. Repetition of false claims until they're accepted as true: In Clancyworld as in our own, that's a classic propaganda technique.
What makes the anti-encryption propaganda in Ruthless.com even more effective is that it's labeled with Tom Clancy's name. Rightly or wrongly, Clancy's longstanding appeal is grounded in the perception that he's technically accurate when describing military hardware and other techno-wizard gimcrackery. When Clancy exploded on the book scene in the 1980s with The Hunt for Red October, a thriller about a Soviet nuclear submarine whose captain wants to defect, the book was praised in the highest military and policy circles for the author's grasp both of military technology and of the ways soldiers, spies, and politicians think about the technology. President Ronald Reagan even went so far as to declare the book a "perfect yarn."
Subsequent Clancy books have shown the same ease with technical and strategic issues–so much so that Clancy's take on those issues is itself considered seriously in some policy circles (as a senator, Dan Quayle famously argued that Clancy's Red Storm Rising, which depicts a Soviet-initiated World War III from a technical and strategic perspective, made the case for U.S. development of an "anti-satellite weapons system"). Rumors abound that Clancy, a political conservative who favors increased military spending, has technical sources in high and secret places.
With my own Clancyworld paranoia running at full throttle, I pursued my dark suspicions about Ruthless.com. Perhaps, I thought, Clancy's highly placed government connections asked him to publish this book to put his imprimatur on an anti-encryption policy that is increasingly being questioned both in the press and by civil liberties groups. Even more suspicious, I thought, was the fact that no one is actually credited as the author of the book–both the cover copy and the interior copy evasively say Ruthless.com was "created by Tom Clancy and Martin Greenberg."
Perhaps this book, which reads almost like a parody of Clancy's hammer-it-home literary style, was actually written by someone else. If so, who wrote it? FBI chief Louis Freeh? Some nameless spook at the NSA?
In the best Clancy tradition, I decided to do a little investigating of my own. I began by calling the publicity office at Ruthless.com's publisher, Berkley Books. I told the woman I spoke to that I wanted to interview the author of the book–"whoever it is; I guess I know it's not Mr. Clancy"–about the sources and inspiration for the novel. Seeming a bit flustered, she told me that she couldn't help me then–"it's late in the day," she said–but she'd have a publicist call me the next day. But no publicist ever contacted me, and when I called again a few days later, I was told that the publicist for the book was "unavailable." No clue as to when that situation would change.
So I tried a different tack. I called up the secretary for Robert Gottlieb, a literary agent at William Morris who's thanked in the book's (unsigned) acknowledgments. When I asked her for contact information for "co-creator" Martin Greenberg, I ended up being transferred to Greenberg himself. This was so sudden that it caught me flatfooted, but I was still able to nervously frame a question to Greenberg about the inspiration for the book's encryption theme. Greenberg was even more nervous than I was. He said that, although he's a former political science professor, he wasn't too knowledgeable about technical issues, and that I'd be better off talking to someone at Red Storm Entertainment, the company responsible for the game version of Ruthless.com.
"Don't worry about the technical stuff," I told Greenberg. "I know that well enough. What I really want to talk about is the genesis of the idea for the book."
But Greenberg was afraid to say anything on the record. He explained that he was nervous when it came to talking about the book because he was bound by confidentiality agreements and didn't want to accidentally violate one. "Agreements involving Red Storm Entertainment?" I asked. "Or Clancy?"
"Agreements involving everyone," he said mysteriously.
And with that he referred me to Kevin Perry, a game designer at Red Storm Entertainment, who was a little more forthcoming. Perry emphasized–perhaps a bit too strongly–that there was "no political purpose" to the novel, which had been written at the same time the game was developed. The anti-encryption stance was a function of plot requirements, he said.
That argument is a bit loose, but then so is Ruthless.com's plot: It consists of a disconnected series of Clancyesque scenes, mostly involving a techno-industrialist named Roger Gordian and his arch-rival, Marcus Caine, who's a cross between Bill Gates and Lex Luthor but lacking the brainpower of either. Caine strives to acquire Gordian's company in order to sell Gordian's encryption technology to foreign powers (Gordian, despite his super-capitalist status, refuses to export his crypto products because, uh, this will make them less secure). There's also a kidnapping/murder subplot set in Southeast Asia that doesn't have much to do with advancing the main plot.
Perry, who designed a previous Red Storm game called Politika (which also features Gordian and which also led to a Clancy-labeled book), says the anti-crypto-export theme was just a way of making Gordian a maverick hero in the Clancy vein. When the book and game were crafted, says Perry, the idea was to anticipate what hot, upcoming issues might "seed" a game and a book that would be a "cross of software, national security, and techno-thrillers." With Politika, the seed was the frequent illness of Boris Yeltsin and the political chaos that might follow his sudden death; with Ruthless.com, Perry explained, the seed was partly the Microsoft antitrust case (Marcus Caine's company, Monolith, is an operating-system giant) and partly the ongoing debate about encryption policy.
Perry's explanations–especially his disarming admission that the plot's logic is "tortured"–kicked me out of my Clancyworld musings about a plot to use the author's street cred to mislead the American public about encryption policy. Indeed, the sheer opportunism of pegging the book and game on encryption policy because it's likely to be a hot issue does much to explain both the un-Clancy-like looseness of the plot and the equally atypical sloppiness regarding technical details.
There is, for instance, a tacked-on climax that involves terrorists robbing a center where the government stores encryption access codes. Ironically, it's the soi-disant anti-terrorist forces in the encryption debate that have been arguing for the creation of such "key escrow" facilities, so that the government can retrieve your key and do a wiretap when it wants to. Yet only if the government's "key escrow" schemes become standard operating procedure will our country and our codes become vulnerable in the way the novel describes them here.
Without disputing that game designers may sometimes facilitate the creation of fictions, that's clearly not the case here. Ruthless.com, considered solely as an exercise in fiction writing, comes across just the way you would expect a novel conceived by a team of programmers and hack writers to come across. Where the real Clancy orchestrates the plot elements in his military thrillers down to the finest detail–indeed, that's why he's popular–his emulators in Ruthless.com are playing little more than a series of disconnected riffs on the established Clancy themes.
To their credit, though, the Ruthless.com team does have it right that encryption policy is a hot issue–and likely to remain one, as governments everywhere grapple with the prospect of losing the ability to snoop into citizens' private communications and data at will. But although the United States has pressured its trading partners over the last decade to suppress powerful private encryption tools, the international momentum is shifting in favor of individual rights.
Even France, which traditionally has denied private citizens the right to encrypt their data, has recently backed down. Still, the long-term success of the pro-encryption movement depends on educating a public that, as yet, is mostly uninformed about encryption policy.
Which is why Ruthless.com still bugs me: It would be a shame if the growing pro-encryption policy consensus were undercut just because Tom Clancy lent his name to a bad book.