The Cuckoo’s Egg by Clifford Stoll
Maybe it’s because I work in the IT space. Or I’m fascinated with those burdened with protecting us from cyber crimes [or those who leverage it against our enemies]. Or maybe it’s because Najwa has already downloaded enough stuff to give me headaches with adware, malware, maybe a virus or two, but it’s hard to tell sometimes.
Whatever the reason, I’m intrigued with how the world of computers work, the way the world is connected, and how easy it seems that people can take advantage of this global network to cause havoc. Months ago I read Countdown to Zero Day about the sabotage of Iranian computers managing their nuclear weapons site. How lines of code written thousands of miles away can control machines in a secret, secluded and offline [the internet doesn’t go there but some really smart people figured out a clever solution anyway] facility, causing physical damage.
Recently I read Dark Territory about the secret history of cyber warfare. Again, the things we don’t even realize are happening around us, right in front of us, essentially a war being fought behind our monitors and inside of devices. It’s a bit unnerving. In this book, there was a mention of another book, recommended for NSA employees to read when people started thinking about how to protect ourselves from cyber threats, that I just finished reading.
The Cuckoo’s Egg story takes place at the dawn of the networked computers age. Before Netscape and AOL. Before Facebook and SnapChat. Before anyone realized that connecting so many computers could have a sinister side to it in addition to connecting people across the globe.
Cliff, an astronomer and accidental hero, notices a 75 cent error in the billing. In attempting to locate the issue, thinking at first it was a software or programming issue, he soon starts to unravel a story that takes him [virtually] from Berkeley, California to the other side of the planet in search of a hacker. Or were there more?
Living in a radical community, with radical friends and loved one, at a radical school, borderline anarchial, he starts rubbing shoulders with the very organizations Berkeley despises — all those three-letter government agencies labeled enemies to the public. CIA. FBI. OSI. NSA. And a few obscure and still little-known organizations lurking in the dark with a mission statement that isn’t so clear.
In the mid-80s, as computers were being used to connect scientists and academic worldwide, the military was also connecting its people. Computers were extraordinarily expensive back then, costing in the hundreds of thousands for some of these supercomputers, running systems programs with gaping holes that were exploited by those in the know. When approaching a military base, let’s say one where they’re building the next-gen missile or a space program, there are armed guards with a no-nonsense attitude to strangers, and not a single person on base who isn’t supposed to be there.
In the world of networked computers, there was no one guarding the hardware, unauthorized people running amok in the databases scooping up information at will, and apparently, not a single person who seemed to concerned about addressing it when Cliff started sounding the alarm.
It’s a fascinating story, one that forces you to remember what computers were like way back in the day [Windows hadn’t been invented yet so the ol’ command prompt was the norm]. the chasing a phantom in the machine using telephone traces that span across the ocean and even an alarm built into a beeper [remember those?] makes it feel like a weakly researched movie plot, until you realize that they were playing with the most advanced technological breakthrough in generations, and the impact that it had on the way we experience the Internet today.
Interspersed with Cliff’s recollection of tracking the hacker, he throws in bits and pieces of his personal life and the life of an astronomer. At first it would seem to get in the way of the main story, but it reiterates that Cliff was just a regular guy, who stumbled on this cat-and-mouse game by accident, and through sheer determination and goodwill, did what the experts and those paid to do this weren’t able to do.
It’s a fascinating story, well written, and a kind of harbinger of what not only came afterwards, today’s world of computers, but what’s yet to come as the world is still figuring out how open the internet should be, how much community can be built virtually without putting people in harm’s way of some devious people, and what happens when no one’s paying attention to what’s going on in the dark while we expose ourselves online.