Classic Computer Magazine Archive START VOL. 4 NO. 7 / FEBRUARY 1990


The Cuckoo's Egg


I love a good spy story, especially one about an amateur forced to try to outwit the pros. I've spent five hours on a bus riding to work every day for the past two years and a good spy story makes those rides (almost) pleasurable. When we received a copy of The Cuckoo's Egg, Clifford Stoll's true story of tracking a spy through computer networks, I jumped at the chance to review it. I was not disappointed.

Cuckoo's Egg author Clifford Stoll was an astron-
omer when he first detected the presence of an in-
truder in the computer network he helped manage.

At the beginning of the hunt--and the book--Stoll is an astronomer at the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory in Berkeley, California. Assigned to assist the systems administrators for the local network, Stoll's first task was to track down an apparent 75-cent billing error. Instead of finding a simple program glitch, Stoll found that a hacker had infiltrated the network through a back door in UNIX.

What followed this first discovery was a year of tracking the intruder through a special monitor devised by Stoll. The initial official U.S. response was apathetic, other than to close doorways into sensitive military computers. As the threat grew, Stoll, a typical Berkeley liberal, found himself becoming more and more intensely involved with the FBI, CIA, NSC and other federal security agencies, much to the chagrin of his friends.

Stoll even wired a pager to his monitoring computer so that he could be alerted to the hacker's presence at any time, day or night. And as the year went by, the unknown hacker intensified his intrusions until Stoll's life became centered, not on his usual work or his everyday life, but on the hacker.

The Cuckoo's Egg is a marv-
elous true story of an amateur
computer detective who helped
crack an international spy ring.

The deeper the reader follows Stoll in The Cuckoo's Egg, the more fascinating details are revealed. For example, it became apparent that the hacker wasn't a Bay Area local--he was unfamiliar with the Berkeley dialect of UNIX! And he smoked Benson & Hedges cigarettes! It's an amazing story, one that will delight the computer user and non-user alike.

Despite Stoll's protestations that he was not a computer expert, he showed a great deal of savvy in creating systems and devices to monitor and trap the intruder. Finally, with the cooperation of Tymnet, the German government and a few government agents who understood the significance of the invasion, the hacker was caught. If you read START regularly, you'll remember Marshall Rosenthal's piece in News, Notes and Quotes in the November 1989 issue about the West German hackers--the group that Stoll tracked is that very one!

One fascinating sidelight to the main story is included in an Epilogue. Remember the worm, or virus, that started in Cornell and paralyzed hundreds of computers across the country? Well, Clifford Stoll was one of the experts who tracked down and killed the worm. Remember the name of the alleged culprit--Robert Morris, Jr.? One of the main government agents who helped Stoll track down the German hackers was none other than the alleged virus' creator's father, Robert Morris, Sr.!

The Cuckoo's Egg is an excellent book, a book you may start reading for pleasure only to find effortlessly yourself learning about UNIX, Vax, LANs, Tymnet and a host of other arcane subjects. I recommend it highly.


The Cuckoo's Egg, $19.95 Doubleday, a division of Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, 666 Fifth Avenue, New York, New York 10103 or contact your local bookseller.