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The Cuckoo’s Egg

📅 2006-Jun-14 ⬩ ✍️ Ashwin Nanjappa ⬩ 🏷️ book ⬩ 📚 Archive

The Cuckoo’s Egg: Tracking A Spy Through The Maze Of Computer Espionage is a book by Clifford Stoll. Published in 1989, it is one of the earliest non-fictional accounts of Internet cracking. In this book, Stoll shares his experiences of tracking a cracker stealing US military secrets. The book is written in the form of a journal which follows Stoll’s discovery of the cracker and his year long stakeout. Stoll was an astronomer at the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory in 1985 when he noticed a discrepancy of 75¢ in the computer accounts usage. On pulling the string he found that a cracker was using the laboratory computers to get into MILNET computers (this is 1985 remember?). He starts tracking him, all the while taking detailed notes in his logbook of the cracker’s moves. The stakeout drags out over a year as Stoll’s cries to the FBI/CIA/NSA and all the other 3-letter agencies fall on deaf ears. Thankfully, the government agencies finally wake up to the problem and the cracker is arrested in his home country. Soon after this experience, the Morris worm hit the Internet and Stoll shares his experience of the worm in the book’s epilogue.

I’d expected the book to be dry with technical stuff, but it was very funny. Stoll is a die-hard hippie and Leftie. The cracker jottings are interspersed with his Leftist takes on the 3-letter agencies, his jokes about research and astronomy and his life at liberal-friendly Berkeley. The book is well detailed in the technical aspects. The moves leading to the final discovery of the cracker are intriguing. An aspect which prominently stands out in the book is how the US government agencies back then had zero idea about the severity of computer security nor knew how to handle it. This cracker didn’t do anything smart, all he did was social engineering and exploiting known program bugs. With just these tricks, he was able to get into hundreds of MILNET computers! This is a damn neat book to read.

Rating: 4/4


Of course, our lab used Berkeley Unix, as do all right-thinking folks. East Coast people were said to be biased towards AT&T Unix, but then, they hadn’t discovered hot tubs either. […] “We’re watching someone who’s never used Berkeley Unix.” He sucked in his breath and whispered, “A heathen.”

(A CIA agent says to Stoll)

“In God we trust, all others we polygraph.”
Back in graduate school, I’d learned how to survive without funding, power, or even office space. Grad students are lowest in the academic hierarchy, and so they have to squeeze resources from between the cracks. When you’re last on the list for telescope time, you make your observations by hanging around the mountaintop, waiting for a slice of time between other observers. When you need an electronic gizmo in the lab, you borrow it in the evening, use it all night, and return it before anyone notices. I didn’t learn much about planetary physics, but weaseling came naturally.

(Stoll comparing military hierarchy to his university hierarchy)

Things are easier in grad school. Just call everyone with a tie “Professor,” and anyone with a beard “Dean.” When in doubt, just say “Doctor.”

© 2022 Ashwin Nanjappa • All writing under CC BY-SA license • 🐘📧