The cover of this award-winning book, The Cuckoo's Egg, by Cliff Stoll
the subtitle, "Tracking a Spy Through the Maze of Computer Espionage".
The subtitle carries with it a hint of mystery to it, as a spy novel should. However,
The Cuckoo's Egg is a different kind of spy novel. Neither is it similar to spy
stories about fictional, highly trained British
spies from a secret intelligence
service called the IMF
, nor is it similar to stories about suave professional
" type mercenaries with a "00" prefix to their
Instead, The Cuckoo's Egg, is an account of a true story; a diary of Cliff
Stoll of how he tracked a German spy who had broken into several United States
military systems. Unlike many spy novels, the main character is hardly extraordinary.
In fact, he is nothing but a laid-back Berkley astronomy student, who had obsessed
over a 75-cent accounting error in the computer systems, leading him to discover
a hacker who had broken into his computer systems. Instead of simply blocking
the hacker from continuing his hacking on the computer system, he followed the
hacker's movements through the computer system, to discover his intent in hacking
the network. Stoll discovers that the hacker has been using his computer as
a gateway to United States military networks, taking information to sell to
Despite Stoll's efforts at tracking the spy, the CIA, FBI, and NSA disregard
his efforts to warn them of the potential threat. Instead, he distracts the
hacker by creating a fake project called SDInet, and sending e-mails with dummy
references to non-existent classified data.
Stoll maintains a very conversational tone to his writing, adding many anecdotes
and stories from his personal life, which made this book very enjoyable, knowing
that this is a true story. For example, Stoll talks about a time in which he
had to dry his sneakers, and decided to use the microwave, without permission
of his friend, to dry his sneakers. Not only does he damage the microwave, but
also he causes the whole room to smell like burning rubber and a black welt
on the ceiling of the kitchen, not to mention melting his sneakers. What's more,
he tries to let out the smell by opening the window, letting the rain in getting
everything wet, and then boiling some vanilla over the stove to cover up the
smell, to no effect. The vanilla then evaporates, and the pot burns. Then he
tries to make things better by baking his friend some cookies, but a third of
the cookie dough slips right off the pan and sticks to the bottom of the oven,
where they turn to cinders.
That is an example of the capabilities of Stoll as a character in The Cuckoo's
Egg. He can track elite German hackers through an intricate network of government
computer systems, but he cannot operate a microwave safely. It is interesting
in the book, how one can follow the changes in Stoll from when he had first
begun on the job to the end of the book. For example, he admits to being anti-establishment
as a graduate, but as he went along in the job, he began to understand and admit
his need for more security from "the Feds."
This book also contains a wealth of computer related material and computer
network material, but none of this information is necessary to understand the
book. In fact, he explains all of the material in layman's terms, so that anyone
can understand it, and uses human terms, like "hiccup", to describe
computer technologies. However, I do admit that one must have a moderate understanding
of computer technologies in order to fully appreciate this book. Another enjoyable
aspect of this novel was his low-tech methods of solving problems and deceiving
the hacker, like jingling his keys above a cable to simulate static on the line.
From my experience, hackers have a culture of their own. They have unique attitudes,
tastes, and motives. Stoll portrays hackers very well in this book, not only
delving into the means in which they acquire what they want, but also their
motives in doing so.
In an essay written by Scott Russell Sanders entitled "The Power of Stories,"
Sanders says that a power of stories is their ability to entertain us. The Cuckoo's
Egg was a very exciting book that was difficult to put down when reading it.
The story feels as if it should be science fiction, but it is a mystery genre,
and it is a true story, making the book even more exciting and compelling. What
makes this book the most enjoyable is his very human voice and conversational
tone that keeps the reader attentive and fascinated, regardless of their knowledge
of computer espionage.