The cuckoos egg : tracking a spy through the maze of computer espionage


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Tracking a Spy through a Maze of Computer Espionage

I wonder how dated it seems now? But then I decided that wouldn't be fair, or an accurate reflection of how I Cliff Stoll. Before the Internet became widely known as a global tool for terrorists, one perceptive U. Armed with clear evidence of computer espionage, he began a highly personal quest to expose a hidden network of spies that threatened national security.

From this tiny beginning Stoll found himself plunged into an incredible true adventure — a search, spanning continents and lasting many months, for a mysterious hacker using the California computer as an electronic way station to infiltrate dozens of other systems, including the most sensitive military, scientific, and intelligence networks in America.

To begin with it was a lonely one — his employers begrudged him the time he was spending and neither the CIA, the FBI or other Government agencies could be bothered to help. In the end, after a whole year of sleepless nights and frustrating days, Stoll at last gets his man — in Hanover, West Germany! Sign up and get a free eBook! Trade Paperback. Price may vary by retailer. Add to Cart Add to Cart. Table of Contents Excerpt Rave and Reviews. About The Book. Chapter One Me, a wizard?

Cliff Stoll

Until a week ago, I was an astronomer, contentedly designing telescope optics. Looking back on it, I'd lived in an academic dreamland. All these years, never planning for the future, right up to the day my grant money ran out. Lucky for me that my laboratory recycled used astronomers.

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Instead of standing in the unemployment line, I found myself transferred from the Keck Observatory at the Lawrence Berkeley Lab, down to the computer center in the basement of the same building. Well, hell, I could fake enough computing to impress astronomers, and maybe pick it up fast enough that my co-workers wouldn't catch on. Still, a computer wizard? Not me -- I'm an astronomer. Now what?

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As I apathetically stared at my computer terminal, I still thought of planetary orbits and astrophysics. As new kid on the block, I had my choice of a cubicle with a window facing the Golden Gate Bridge, or an unventilated office with a wall of bookshelves. Swallowing my claustrophobia, I picked the office, hoping that nobody would notice when I slept under the desk. On either side were offices of two systems people, Wayne Graves and Dave Cleveland, the old hands of the system. I soon got to know my neighbors through their bickering.

Tracking a Spy Through the Maze of Computer Espionage

Viewing everyone as incompetent or lazy, Wayne was crossthreaded with the rest of the staff. Yet he knew the system thoroughly, from the disk driver software up to the microwave antennas.


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Dave Cleveland, our serene Unix buddha, patiently listened to Wayne's running stream of computer comparisons. A rare meeting didn't have Wayne's pitch, "Vaxes are the choice of scientists everywhere and help build strong programs twelve ways. First day on the job, sandwiched between two characters who were already ruining my daydreams with their periodic disputes. At least nobody could complain about my appearance.

I wore the standard Berkeley corporate uniform: grubby shirt, faded jeans, long hair, and cheap sneakers. Managers occasionally wore ties, but productivity went down on the days they did.

Together, Wayne, Dave, and I were to run the computers as a lab-wide utility. We managed a dozen mainframe computers -- giant workhorses for solving physics problems, together worth around six million dollars. The scientists using the computers were supposed to see a simple, powerful computing system, as reliable as the electric company. This meant keeping the machines running full time, around the clock. And just like the electric company, we charged for every cycle of computing that was used. Of four thousand laboratory employees, perhaps a quarter used the main computers. Each of these one thousand accounts was tallied daily, and ledgers kept inside the computer.

With an hour of computing costing three hundred dollars, our bookkeeping had to be accurate, so we kept track of every page printed, every block of disk space, and every minute of processor time. A separate computer gathered these statistics and sent monthly bills to laboratory departments. And so it happened that on my second day at work, Dave wandered into my office, mumbling about a hiccup in the Unix accounting system.

Someone must have used a few seconds of computing time without paying for it. Now, an error of a few thousand dollars is obvious and isn't hard to find. But errors in the pennies column arise from deeply buried problems, so finding these bugs is a natural test for a budding software wizard.

Dave said that I ought to think about it. Well, this seemed like a fun toy, so I dug into the accounting program. I discovered our accounting software to be a patchwork of programs written by long-departed summer students. Somehow, the hodgepodge worked well enough to be ignored. Looking at the mixture of programs, I found the software in Assembler, Fortran, and Cobol, the most ancient of computer languages.


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Might as well have been classical Greek, Latin, and Sanskrit. As with most home-brew software, nobody had bothered to document our accounting system. Only a fool would poke around such a labyrinth without a map. Still, here was a plaything for the afternoon and a chance to explore the system. Dave showed me how the system recorded each time someone connected to the computer, logging the user's name, and terminal. It timestamped each connection, recording which tasks the user executed, how many seconds of processor time he used, and when he disconnected.

Dave explained that we had two independent accounting systems.

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The ordinary Unix accounting software just stored the timestamped records into a file. But to satisfy some bureaucrat, Dave had built a second accounting system which kept more detailed records of who was using the computer. Over the years, a succession of bored summer students had written programs to analyze all this accounting information. One program collected the data and stashed it into a file. A second program read that file and figured how much to charge for that session. Yet a third program collected all these charges and printed out bills to be mailed to each department.

The cuckoos egg : tracking a spy through the maze of computer espionage The cuckoos egg : tracking a spy through the maze of computer espionage
The cuckoos egg : tracking a spy through the maze of computer espionage The cuckoos egg : tracking a spy through the maze of computer espionage
The cuckoos egg : tracking a spy through the maze of computer espionage The cuckoos egg : tracking a spy through the maze of computer espionage
The cuckoos egg : tracking a spy through the maze of computer espionage The cuckoos egg : tracking a spy through the maze of computer espionage
The cuckoos egg : tracking a spy through the maze of computer espionage The cuckoos egg : tracking a spy through the maze of computer espionage
The cuckoos egg : tracking a spy through the maze of computer espionage The cuckoos egg : tracking a spy through the maze of computer espionage
The cuckoos egg : tracking a spy through the maze of computer espionage The cuckoos egg : tracking a spy through the maze of computer espionage

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