The Cuckoo's Egg

Book Card  -  Volume 19  -  Book Review Number 2  -  Thu, Mar 21, 1991 3:40 AM

TITLE: The Cuckoo's Egg
AUTHOR: Cliff Stoll
PUBLISHER: Simon & Schuster

Cliff Stoll has become something of a cult figure in the last few years. His curious adventure led to numerous talk show interviews and an hour-long documentary on NOVA. He makes a striking figure. Unable to sit in anything other a lotus or a fetal position, he gesticulates wildly and, like a child, abandons himself completely to whatever puzzle comes his way.

Stoll was a post-graduate astronomer at Berkeley when his funding ran out. Someone took pity on him and gave him a job in the computer room. On his second day at work his boss stopped in with a minor assignment: a 75 cent discrepancy in some computer accounts. Stoll's efforts to resolve this problem sent him on a high-tech journey that eventually led to a KGB spy ring on another continent! His story is astonishing, funny, sweet, utterly captivating, and TRUE.

As it turned out, the 75 cent error was a kind of fingerprint left by a very clever hacker who was routinely passing through Berkeley's computer system on his way to various military installations around the country. Cliff was soon able to watch every character this mysterious hacker typed, and watched with growing horror and fascination as the hacker broke into one computer after another. Finding out who this person was and where he was calling from, however, turned out to be much, much harder than anyone could have guessed.

Cliff's book is fascinating on several levels. As a spy thriller it rivals anything by Tom Clancy. For those interested in hackers and viruses and trojan horses and the inner workings of vast computer systems there is much to digest. Both novices and computer experts can profit from the lessons Cliff learns along the way. And his story is also an exposé of some of the huge and bumbling bureaucracies entwined in all of our lives, including various phone companies, the justice system both here and abroad, countless branches of the military, the FBI, the CIA, the NSA, and assorted other cloak and dagger agencies that stumble over each other like keystone cops.

As if this wasn't enough this story is also about life in "The People's Republic of Berkeley" and Cliff's tender and funny relationship with his sweetheart, Martha. Together with other off-beat and wildly improbable characters, Cliff and Martha manage to outwit the spies and save the day.

The book is very well written. One of the things I most admire about Cliff Stoll is that he is not afraid to let us in on his own mistakes and misunderstandings. Most people automatically forget their missteps and faux pas, but Cliff gives us each step of his journey with the unblinking clarity and innocence of a child. He is a long-haired innocent abroad in a world of self-important bureaucrats and blue-suited special agents. At first he is brushed away like an annoying child, but by the end of the book all the secret agents and bureaucrats are beating a path to his cubicle door. Thus the book is not only an engaging mystery but a real-life fairy tale as well. One of the most enjoyable books I've read in the last year!