“The Cuckoo’s Egg” is a story of persistence, love for one’s work and is just plain funny! The story starts out with Clifford Stoll being “recycled” to a computer analyst/webmaster.
Cliff, as he is affectionately called, is a long-haired ex-hippie that works at Lawrence Berkeley Lab. He originally was an astronomer, but since his grant wore out, he became a mainframe master. He was glad that instead of throwing him out into the unemployment office, the Lab recycled their people and downstairs he went, to the computer lab.
A few days after he becomes the master of the mainframe, his colleague, Wayne Graves, asks him to figure out a 75cent glitch that is in the accounting system. It turns out that a computer guru, “Seventek” seems to be in town. None of his closest friends know that. The Lab becomes suspicious that it might be a hacker.
To fill you in on who Seventek is, he is a computer guru that created a number of programs for the Berkeley UNIX system. At the time, he was in England far from computers and civilization. The crew does not what to believe that it would be Seventek, so they start to look at what the impostor is doing.
Cliff hooks up a few computers to the line that comes from the Tymnet. Tymnet is a series of fiber-optic cables that run from a major city to another major city. So if you were in LA and wanted to hook up to a computer in the Big Apple you could call long distance, have a lot of interference from other callers and have a slow connection, or you could sign-up to Tymnet and dial locally, hop on the optic cable and cruise at a T-3 line.
The lab had only five Tymnet lines so Cliff could easily monitor everyone with five computers, teletypes, and five printers. That was the difficult part, where to get all that equipment. At graduate school, they taught Cliff to improvise. It was a Friday, and not many people come to work on Saturday. Since it was easier to make up an excuse than to beg for anything, he “borrowed” everything he needed. Then programmed his computer to beep twice when someone logged on from the Tymnet lines. The thing is, since he was sleeping under his desk, he would gouge his head on the desk drawer.
Also, many people like to check their E-mail very late at night, so as not to get interference. Because of that, his terminal beeped a lot! The next day, he was woken up by the cable operator. Cliff said that he must have smelled like a dying goat. Anyway, the hacker only logged on once during the night but left an 80-foot souvenir behind. Cliff estimated two to three hours roaming through the three million dollar pieces of silicon that he calls a computer. During that time he planted a “Cuckoo’s egg.”
The cuckoo is a bird that leaves its eggs in another bird’s nest. If it were not for the other species’ ignorance, the cuckoo would die out. The same is for the mainframe. There is a house cleaning program that runs every five minutes on the Berkeley UNIX. It is called atrun. The hacker put his version of atrun into the computer through a hole in the Gnu-Emacs program.
It is a program that lets the person who is sending an E-mail put a file anywhere they wished. So that is how the hacker became a “Superuser.” A superuser has all the privileges of a system operator, but from a different computer. Cliff called the FBI, the CIA, and all the other three-lettered agencies that had spooks in trench coats and dark glasses (and some of them had these nifty ear pieces too!) Everyone except the FBI lifted a finger.
The FBI listened but, they stated that if they hadn’t lost millions of dollars in equipment, or classified data, they didn’t what to know them. The hodgepodge of information between the CIA, NSA, and Cliff began to worry his lover, Martha. A little background on her. She and Clifford have known each other since they were kids, and lovers since they turned adults. They didn’t feel like getting married because they thought that was a thing that you do when you’re very bland.
They wanted freedom. If they ever wanted to leave they would just pack their bags, pay their share of the utilities, and hightail it out of there. Well back to the plot. She too was an ex-hippie and she hated anything that had to do with government. The spook calls were killing their relationship.
When Cliff wanted to trace a phone call to the hacker, the police said. “That just isn’t our bailiwick.” It seemed that everyone wanted information, wanted Cliff to say open with his monitoring system, but nobody seemed interested in paying for the things that were happening.
When Cliff found the hacker in a supposedly secure system, he called the system administrator. The hacker was using the computer in their system to dial anywhere he wished, and they picked up the tab. The guy was NOT happy. He asked if he was to close up shop for the hacker and change all the passwords. Cliff answered no, he wanted to track the guy/gal.
First Cliff strategically master-minded a contrivance. He would ask for the security system’s phone records, which would show him (theoretically) where the hacker is calling to. Then that night, Cliff became the hacker. He used his computer to log in to his account at Berkley and then he would Telnet to the hacked system, try the passwords and see what he could see. Boy was he ever surprised! He could call anywhere, for free!! He had access to other computers on the network also, one sensitive at that.
The next day, Cliff called the system administrator and told him about his little excursion. The guy answered. “Sorry Cliff, we have to close up shop. This went right up the line, and well, the modems are going down for a long time.” This irritated Clifford. He was so close! Anyway, his life went back to semi-normal. (Was it ever?!)
Then unexpectedly his beeper beeped. To fill you in, he got himself a beeper for those unexpected pleasures. He was in the middle of making scrambled eggs for Martha, who was still asleep. He wrote her a note saying “The case is afoot!!J”, leaving the eggs still in the pan.
The hacker didn’t come through the now secure system, but through another line, over Tymnet. He called Tymnet and got them to do a search. They traced him over the “puddle” (the Atlantic) to the German Datex Network.
They couldn’t trace any further because the German’s network is all switches, not like the computerized switches of the good ol’ US of A! There would have to be a technician, there tracing the wire along the wall, into the ground, and maybe on to a telephone pole. Not only that, the Germans wouldn’t do anything without a search warrant.
Every minor discovery was told about six times to the different three-letter agencies that were on the case. Meanwhile, since this was no longer a domestic case, and was remotely interesting for the FBI, they took the case, out of pure boredom.
The CIA affectionately called the FBI the “F entry”. Now that the guys at the F entry were in, there was work to be done. They got a warrant, but the guy who was to deliver never did. This was beginning to be serious. Every time Cliff tried to get some info on what is going on across the puddle, the agencies clamed up.
When the warrant finally came, the Germans let the technicians be there at midnight, German time. As soon as the fiend on the other side raised his periscope, they would nail him.
The problem was, to trace him, well, he needed to be on the line for about two hours! The kicker is that he was on for mostly two to three-minute intervals. That is when Operation Showerhead came into effect!! Martha came up with this plan while in the shower with Cliff…First make up some cheesy files that sound remotely interesting.
Then place them in a spot that only he and the hacker could read. Recall that the hacker was after military files. They take files that were already there, change all the Mr. to General, all the Ms to corporal, and all the Professors to Sergeant Major. All that day they made up those files. Then they pondered what the title should be, STING or SDINET.
They chose SDINET because STING looked too obvious. Then they created a bogus secretary, under the address of a real one. Cliff put enough files on the directory so that it would take the hacker at least three hours of dumping the whole file onto his computer.
In one of the files, it said that if you wanted more info, send it to this address. Well one day, Cliff was actually doing some work, for a change, when the real secretary called to say that a letter came for the bogus secretary. Cliff ran up the stairs, the elevator was too slow. They opened it and she read it aloud to Cliff who was in utter amassment. Then he called the F entry. They told him not to touch the document and to send it to them in a special envelope. He did.
Cliff was at home one day and all of a sudden his beeper beeped. Since he programmed it to beep in Morse code, he knew where the hacker was coming from before he physically saw him on the screen. Martha groaned while Clifford jumped on his old ten speed and rode to work. When he got there, the hacker just started to download the SDINET files from the UNIX. He called Tymnet and started the ball rolling. That day the hacker was on for more than two hours, enough for the trace to be completed. Though he knew that the FBI knew the number, they wouldn’t tell him who the predator was.
For the next few days, Clifford expected to get a call from the Germans saying, “You can close up your system, we have him at the police station now.” That didn’t happen. He got word, though, that there was a search of his home, and they recovered printouts, computer back-up tapes, and disks, and diskettes. That was enough evidence to lock him up for a few years. Then one day, they caught him in the act. That was enough; he was in the slammer awaiting trial.
Clifford’s adventure was over, he caught his hacker and was engaged to Martha. They decided to get married after all. He returned to being an astronomer, and not a computer wizard. Though many people thought of him as a wizard, he himself thought that what he did was a discovery that he stumbled on. From a 75cent accounting mishap to Tymnet to Virginia, to Germany.