Jonathan's Reviews > The Cuckoo's Egg: Tracking a Spy Through the Maze of Computer Espionage

The Cuckoo's Egg by Clifford Stoll
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Sep 22, 2009

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Read in August, 2009

Here is the story of how I came to read The Cuckoo’s Egg: I purchased it at a library book sale because it looked interesting, tossed it in a box because I didn’t have time to read it, and promptly forgot about it.

Then I got married, and we got real bookshelves instead of boxes, and I put the book on the shelf because it was hardbound and hardbound books show that you are a serious, thoughtful person.

Then my Uncle Steve came over from Florida and started telling me about a book he had read, a true story of a guy tracking down a hacker in the 80s. “Wait a sec,” I said, “is it this book?” And I pulled down my dusty copy of The Cuckoo’s Egg. It was, in fact, that book, and I decided that it didn’t deserve space on the shelf if I hadn’t actually read it.

The Cuckoo’s Egg is written by an astronomer who had been put in charge of some computers. He’d been trying to track down a 75-cent accounting error–this was back when you had to pay for every cycle of computer time–and, almost entirely by accident, found a hacker in his system, using it as a stepping-stone to attack other computer systems around the country.

That all happens in the first twenty-five pages. Rather than closing the hole the hacker was using to get in, however, Stoll decided he wanted to catch the guy, and that’s where the real story begins, because tracking a communications link backwards is not very easy. None of the three-letter government agencies take him seriously, his relationship with his girlfriend is rather strained, and the three weeks his boss gave him to investigate the problem stretch into months. It’s tedious work (and, in parts, tedious reading) analyzing every move the hacker makes and trying to piece together enough information to catch him.

This book isn’t for everyone. It’s a spy story, but it’s been pieced together from Stoll’s logbook and the man is a scientist–you’ll find no melodrama or embellished details here, just the facts. The author doesn’t assume a technical audience but if you’ve ever used Unix (or its successor on PCs, Linux), you will understand a lot more of what’s going on inside the systems. There’s just enough real-human stuff to break up the technical monotony–Cliff has an active social life, sews his own Pope costume, and at one point microwaves his shoes–but in the end this book is great reading mostly for those interested in computers and security.

I also recommend it if you want to know what the Internet was like in its Wild West days, before the personal computer and the World Wide Web brought it to the masses. Scientists, military networks, and archaic file transfer protocols are all present and accounted for. It’s a fascinating how old everything seems even though the book’s events happened only a little more than twenty years ago.

In closing, here’s a number sequence puzzle that a three-letter-agency spook gave Cliff in the book that–at the time of the book’s publishing–Cliff hadn’t figured out yet. Can you? Hint: It requires very little math.

1, 11, 21, 1211, 111221, ….
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