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In its least destructive form, computer hacking is a form of breaking and entering which can cost people hours, days, or months of work due to missing or damaged files or interrupted machine access. At its worst, when it occurs on computers used in medicine and defense, it is life-threatening vandalism. Despite this, there are still quite a few network users, particularly students, who profess to believe in "open" systems and free access for all to information, particularly information belonging to such obviously evil organisations as multinationals and the government.
One of the things The Cuckoo's Egg is about is the transformation of one such person, an astronomer turned programmer named Clifford Stoll, into a someone pro-actively concerned about computer security. In 1986 Stoll had just started working on a computer system at the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory near San Francisco when he noticed a 75-cent discrepancy between the charges printed by two accounting programs responsible for charging people for machine use. What he first thought was a bug turned out to be the beginning of a chase that led him from California to West Germany via the FBI, the CIA, the NSA, and a carpenter's handful of other acronyms, and led to the arrest of a group of German hackers who had been scouring American military systems for material to sell to the KGB.
The technical details of that search are another of the things this book is about. Markus Hess, the hacker Stoll was tracking, exploited a variety of simple loopholes in computer security systems to break into machines belonging to both the military and to civilian defense contractors through the Internet, a network created by the US government which links thousands of academic, industrial, and (unclassified) military computers. The most engrossing parts of this book are the ones which describe how Stoll patiently watched his hacker, day after day, tracking him first to a local university, then to Alabama, then Virginia, and finally to this side of the Atlantic. There is a lot of technical detail here, which some readers might find off-putting, but Stoll is careful to define his terms (even though he often does this after first using them), and assumes a user's, rather than an engineer's, knowledge of how computers work.
Jurisdiction, or rather organisational quibbles about it, is this book's third subject. Stoll's story shows the inadequacy of present legislation when confronted with crimes like these, crimes in which the perpetrator and the victim may be six thousand miles apart, and no physical evidence may remain after the crime. Once he realized he was dealing with a tenacious intruder, rather than a casual amateur out for a joyride, Stoll contacted his local FBI office. The attitude he encountered was to plague him throughout his chase: nothing had been stolen, no-one had been kidnapped, and there was less than a million dollars at stake, so the FBI couldn't help, though they wanted to be kept informed. The CIA couldn't help either, although they wanted to be kept informed as well. The NSA's National Computer Security Center (whose responsibility was how to design secure computers, not investigating holes in existing ones), and the Air Force Office of Special Investigation gave the same answers --- no one organisation, it seemed, was responsible for computer security, though many individuals within those organisations understood and feared the erosion of the trust upon which computer networks are built which hacking was causing.
An amateur's search for an electronic criminal, his transformation from a relaxed, comfortably anti-establishment academic into someone with a stake in making the system work, and his struggles with a bureaucracy whose rules had not kept pace with the times --- in reality, this book is about the end of yet another American frontier. When the computer revolution took off at the beginning of the 1980s, many gurus prophesied that computer networks and personal computing would make society more open and more aware of itself. For a while it seemed as though it could actually happen. Computer companies, and computing departments, were famous for their relaxed attitudes, their combination of Zen and high technology. Public networks managed by volunteers and good faith sprouted all over America, and later in Europe, to connect these people together.
It couldn't last, and didn't. A computer open enough to allow your friends easy access is necessarily open enough to allow such access to strangers, whose good will is not guaranteed. Malicious hacking, and the intentional destruction of property, have been very rare to date (or rather, publicly reported instances of it have been rare --- there is no law to force your building society to disclose how many times its computers have been held to ransom by ex-employees with a grudge), but snooping and pranks have become increasingly widespread. Robert T. Morris Jr.'s famous worm program in 1988, which is the subject of the epilogue of this book, was only the most public of many nails being driven into the coffin of the open computer society. The gurus who created networks for us made them so useful that we must now give up the rough-and-ready hospitality of the frontier for the self-interest and suspicion of town dwellers.
Stoll is very much a product of that laid-back pioneering society, something which his writing style unfortunately reflects. When he wanders away from his detective story and describes bits of his personal life he becomes embarrassingly Californian --- there's a recipe for cookies in one of the footnotes, and his wife and roommate are both so wonderful and supportive I wanted to reach for a bucket. His folksiness is the book's only real weak point; while some might object to the detail with which he describes the techniques hackers use, the people in black hats already know them, and the only effective basis for security is understanding.
— Dr. Dobb's Electronic Review of Computer Books
Posted January 21, 2013
Cliff Stoll's non-fiction account of the events that lead him to unwind the trail of European hackers in US research and defense computing resources during the late '80s. Cliff has a way with words that allows for those who may not be the most well-versed in 'Computerese' or IT-jargon to understand exactly what is going on throughout this suspenseful yarn, yet thorough enough to satisfy the curiosity of a systems administrator. An all-time favorite story, I've purchased this book several times over the years--now it's finally come to the Nook store so I can have it with me where ever I go. Ace!
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Posted February 22, 2013
Another Day at the Collider:
The Cuckoos Egg written by Clifford Stoll has stolen my heart. I started and finished this book in 2 days, I couldn’t put it down! The book isn’t excessively short, isn’t an easy read per say, but it really is an attention grabber.
Starting out in California with our main character Clifford becoming a recent hire at the astronomy lab at the hill you can tell from the beginning this book was written by a scientist. Every number is carefully remembered, every detail well documented and random tangents which aren’t always relevant ever present. But all of these little things contribute to tell a truly thrilling tail of pursuit through the maze of an infantile global network of computers. The voice and style of writing throughout the book are simple, and to the point. But I believe this added to the book, making the somewhat advanced computer programming jargon quite accessible to the tech-impaired. Since the book is based off a well documented court case there are many transcripts of exactly what the hacker is doing and how he’s doing it. Clifford uses these transcripts beautifully by combining them with footnotes and stroke by stroke explanation. The cat and mouse game played out through 323 pages will keep you reading, with new and different twists and turns constantly shifting the entire focus of one Berkley hippy. Some of the greatest twist of course coming from out Berkley hippy dressed in corduroys and a Hawaiian T-Shirt strolling into high level military and F.B.I. buildings to tell them that they had missed something. All of these meetings add an incredible edge of comedy and really show the Juxtaposition between 2 worlds which were about to collide big time.
I would suggest this book to people who have any interest in the beginnings of cyber security, or where the internet and hacking became a serious problem for our government. This book is one of the reasons we all have to have 14 character passwords with every letter of the alphabet, numbers, and social security number for our Starbucks account. This book is also really great if you just like to know a few basic computer language things to impress your friends with! You’ll be able to talk all about the Gnu-Emacs hole and how it affected modern cyber security (even if it’s not relevant at all, you’ll still sound way smarter than you actually are!) I advise you to purchase a copy right now, and in a day when you’re done reading come back and let everyone else know just how much you liked this excellent thrill of the chase novel.
Posted January 17, 2013
Posted July 20, 2012
The theme of book still lives today. The same mistakes are being made by network administrators, management, and law enforcement. Cyber crime victims rarely know they are victims. This book illustrates that 20+ years ago this was an issue and today is more of issue because of how much more we are connected.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted May 10, 2006
Posted October 21, 2012
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Posted February 11, 2015
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Posted July 13, 2013
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