In The Cuckoo’s Egg, astronomer-turned-detective Cliff Stoll chases down a
trespasser on his university’s computer network. The chase winds across the US,
through the networks of US defense contractors and US military bases, past
satellites in orbit, and even into computers as distant as Japan and Germany.
Despite there being very little physical action, the process of untangling this
path (and avoiding detection in the process) is surprisingly satisfying.
Stoll recounts the whole ordeal with great detail, likely thanks to his
rigorous practice of note taking. That’s not to say the book is dry, though.
Stoll fills the pages with colorful details about hacker culture which help
readers appreciate the interwoven technical and social details of life on the
early Internet. Reading today (a full 30 years after the original publication),
this perspective can also be appreciated for its historical value.
For instance, Stoll struggles with the concept of responsible disclosure of
software vulnerabilities. It’s tempting to attribute this to his non-technical
background, but really, this was novel territory for the industry at that time.
People simply hadn’t developed a shared understanding of how to handle
newly-discovered security weaknesses. When Stoll struggles with the concept,
he’s giving the reader a first-hand account of a major uncertainty of the time.
Along these same lines, today’s widespread distrust of the National Security
Agency is apparent only in nascent form. Stoll was writing well before PRISM
and also before the “crypto wars” of the ‘90s. It’s interesting to read 1989’s
analogous perspective which only amounts to a vague suspicion. Maybe because of
this less adversarial viewpoint, Stoll displays a guarded admiration for the US
intelligence officers, from their computers to their software and to their
“What’s your address?”
“Just mail it to Teejay, Zip code 20505. It’ll reach me.”
Now there’s status. No last name, no street, no city, no state. I wondered if
he ever got junk mail.
This “nerding out” also touches on software movements. Some, like the fractured
UNIX ecosystem, are somewhat less relevant today. Most of them are surprisingly
familiar, though–things like GNU, the free software movement (the term “open
source” wouldn’t be used for another ten years), and even the Emacs/Vi divide.
These topics are intrinsically technical, and Stoll doesn’t try to hide that.
Instead, he describes concepts like command-line interfaces, file permissions,
and time-sharing systems in terms that seem genuinely intuitive (though as a
regular user of these tools, I’m not the best judge).
Don’t get the wrong idea, though: The Cuckoo’s Egg isn’t strictly about the
tech world. There are plenty of prosaic interludes to Stoll’s life at home with
his girlfriend. They bake cookies, ride bikes, sew quilts, and garden. These
are thoughtfully integrated and help paint Stoll as a whole person. At the same
time, the author doesn’t make any effort to tie them in to the larger
narrative. By and large, the book stays focused on the chase.
While glimpses into Stoll’s private life make it easier to empathize with him,
his playful attitude really drives the narrative. He regularly uses
self-deprecating humor to highlight the cultural clash between Californian
researchers and Washington officials. He occasionally behaves impulsively,
inviting the reader to enjoy the egg on his face. Through frequent bad jokes in
conversation with others, he make the admonishment, “Be serious, Cliff,” a
running gag. This is all in stark contrast to the behavior of Stoll’s
adversary. For a book on espionage, the villain is surprisingly mechanical
(Stoll even entertains the idea that he’s watching the actions of a computer
program). It’s Stoll’s goofy nature that makes the story compelling and fun.
The central theme of The Cuckoo’s Egg is respect for computer networks.
There’s a technical component to this; Stoll’s investigation spans some
incredible infrastructure, and he shares the awe he feels freely. His true
appreciation, though, comes from the social structures that build and maintain
these networks. Stoll convincingly presents this as a slow recognition of the
importance of trust and openness on the Internet, making the book just as much
an argument for those principles as an account of his personal growth. The
Internet needs those things just as sorely
so The Cuckoo’s Egg has aged incredibly well.