“The Cuckoo’s Egg” is a compelling tale of perseverance, passion for one’s job, and humor! The narrative begins with the introduction of Clifford Stoll, who was “recycled” to become a computer analyst and webmaster.
Cliff, a former astronomer turned mainframe specialist, worked at Lawrence Berkeley Lab. He was reassigned to the computer lab after his grant expired, rather than being laid off.
Cliff’s colleague, Wayne Graves, asked him to fix a 75-cent glitch in the accounting system soon after he became the master of the mainframe. During the investigation, they discover that a computer expert named “Seventek” is in town, and the lab starts to suspect that he might be a hacker.
Seventek is a computer expert who created programs for the Berkeley UNIX system and was in England at the time. The team investigates the activities of an impersonator suspected of being Seventek.
Cliff connects multiple computers to Tymnet, a fiber-optic cable network that spans major cities to ensure faster and interference-free connections.
The lab had only five Tymnet lines, making it easier for Cliff to monitor everyone using five computers, teletypes, and printers. Cliff managed to acquire all the necessary equipment for monitoring by “borrowing” it on Fridays and programmed his computer to beep twice whenever someone logged onto the Tymnet lines. He slept under his desk, resulting in occasional injuries.
Many people preferred to check their email late at night, resulting in frequent beeping from Cliff’s terminal. The hacker only logged on once during the night but left an 80-foot souvenir behind, and Cliff estimated that they planted a “Cuckoo’s egg” during their two to three-hour roaming through the computer’s three-million-dollar silicon pieces.
The cuckoo is a bird that lays its eggs in another bird’s nest, and if it weren’t for the ignorance of the other species, the cuckoo would perish. The hacker inserted their version of the atrun program through a hole in the Gnu-Emacs program to infiltrate the computer, gaining “Superuser” status with all the privileges of a system operator.
Despite Cliff’s efforts, the FBI, CIA, and other agencies were largely uninterested in the situation, only willing to intervene if millions of dollars in equipment or classified data were lost. The hodgepodge of information exchanged between the CIA, NSA, and Cliff began to worry his lover, Martha.
Martha and Cliff have known each other since childhood, and they have been lovers since adulthood. They never felt like getting married because they believed it was a bland thing to do. Martha, also an ex-hippie, detested anything associated with the government. The spook calls were taking a toll on their relationship.
When Cliff wanted to trace a phone call to the hacker, the police replied, “That just isn’t our bailiwick.” It seemed that everyone desired information and wanted Cliff to maintain his monitoring system’s openness, but no one seemed interested in paying for the events that were transpiring.
After discovering the hacker in a supposedly secure system, Cliff contacted the system administrator, who was unaware that their computer was being used to make unauthorized calls. The administrator asked if they should shut down the system and change passwords, but Cliff declined, wanting to track the hacker.
Initially, Cliff devised a scheme. He requested the security system’s phone records, which would theoretically display where the hacker was calling. Then, that same night, Cliff masqueraded as the hacker. He used his computer to log into his account at Berkeley, then Telnetted into the hacked system, attempting various passwords to gain entry. Cliff was shocked by what he found! He could make free calls to any location!! Furthermore, he had access to other computers on the network, including a sensitive one.
The next day, Cliff informed the system administrator about his little excursion. The administrator replied, “Sorry, Cliff, we have to close up shop. This went right up the line, and the modems are going down for an extended period.” This news irritated Clifford as he had come so close to apprehending the hacker. Regardless, his life returned to a semblance of normalcy (if it ever existed)
Cliff was cooking scrambled eggs for Martha when his beeper went off. He rushed to check it, grateful he had invested in one for unexpected emergencies. Scribbling a quick note that read “The case is afoot!! J,” he left the eggs sizzling on the stove and headed out.
Cliff contacted Tymnet to trace the hacker who had gained access through a different line. They located him on the German Datex Network, but they couldn’t trace him further because of the different network system. The Germans required a search warrant, and a technician would need to physically trace the wire along the wall, underground, and onto a telephone pole.
As each minor discovery was made, the various three-letter agencies involved in the case were notified repeatedly. However, it was only when the FBI got involved out of pure boredom that things started to heat up. The CIA humorously called them the “F entry,” but the F entry was now on the case, and they meant business. They obtained a warrant, but the person responsible for delivering it failed to do so, making the situation even more serious.
Every time Cliff tried to gain more information about the case, the agencies clammed up, frustrating him to no end.
When the warrant finally arrived, the German technicians were ready to act at midnight their time. They waited for the hacker to make his move, ready to pounce as soon as he did. But there was a problem – they needed him to stay on the line for at least two hours to trace his location. The trouble was, he was only on for a few minutes at a time. That’s when Martha came up with Operation Showerhead.
Martha suggests creating fake files for the hacker, using official-sounding military file names to trap him. They modify existing files, change the titles to include “General,” “Corporal,” and “Sergeant Major,” and even create a fake secretary’s address. When the hacker contacts the address, Cliff retrieves the letter and calls the F entry.
They told him not to touch the document and to send it to them in a special envelope, which he did. Cliff couldn’t help but wonder what the hacker was thinking as he read through their fake files, and he hoped they were one step closer to catching him.
Cliff receives a beep from his beeper, indicating that the hacker was back. Riding his old ten-speed to work, he catches the hacker downloading the SDINET files from UNIX. With the help of Tymnet, they locate the hacker and trace him. The FBI doesn’t reveal the hacker’s identity to Cliff. Later, evidence is found, leading to the hacker’s arrest, and he is put in jail awaiting trial.
Cliff’s adventure was over, and he had caught his hacker. To top it off, he and Martha decided to tie the knot after all. Clifford went back to being an astronomer, but to many, he was still a computer wizard. However, he felt that he had merely stumbled upon a discovery that took him from a 75-cent accounting mishap to Tymnet to Virginia, and finally, to Germany.