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 ===== Book Review: The Cuckoo'​s Egg ===== ===== Book Review: The Cuckoo'​s Egg =====
  
-I've been re-reading Clifford Stoll'​s ​//The Cuckoo'​s Egg -- Tracking a Spy Through the Maze of Computer Espionage// (Doubleday, 1989, hardcopy ISBN 0-385-24946-2paperback ISBN 0-7434-1146-3 -- inexpensive used copies available at Amazon.com), as an enjoyable holidays diversion and a real trip in the way-back machine! ​ I don't recall exactly when I first read this book -- must have been in the early 1990s -- but re-reading it from the distance of almost 30 years (New Year's 2019) has been a whole new experience.+//The Cuckoo'​s Egg -- Tracking a Spy Through the Maze of Computer Espionage//, by Clifford Stoll (Doubleday, 1989, hardcopy ISBN 0-385-24946-2; 2015 paperback ISBN 0-7434-1146-3 -- inexpensive used copies available at Amazon.com).
  
-This is Cliff Stoll'​s ​chronicle about chasing ​an early black-hat hacker (system cracker) ​in the early days of networked computers, with primitive trans-Atlantic connections,​ Tymnet, early LAN/​Ethernet,​ and a nascent Internet with only a few hundred thousand [!!] computers connected overall, mostly ​in universities,​ some businesses and the military.+I've been re-reading ​Cliff Stoll'​s ​//The Cuckoo'​s Egg//, as an enjoyable holidays diversion and real trip in the way-back machine I don't recall exactly when I first read this book -- must have been in the early 1990s -- but re-reading it from the distance of almost 30 years (New Year's 2019) has been a whole new experience.
  
-In the mid-1980s, ​Stoll was an astronomer at Lawrence Berkeley Labs who got displaced ​(reassigned?​) to computer ​system ​management dutieson DEC VAX computer systems (he spells 'em as "​Vax",​ as proper noun, not the acronym that it is) running both VMS and Unix.  The LBL user community included astronomers,​ physicists, and plenty of other scientific-academic types. ​ Attitudes were opensharing, and security-naïve; Stoll'​s world-view, like most of his colleagueswas hippie-derived and fully distrustful of authority"the man," ​and of government in general. ​ Yet he had to turn to members ​in the usual three-letter-acronym organizations for help in his chase.+This is Cliff Stoll's chronicle about chasing ​an early black-hat hacker ​(system ​cracker, a bad-guya proto-cyber-criminal) in the early days of networked computerswith primitive trans-Atlantic connectionsTymnet, early Ethernet/​LAN, and a nascent Internet with only a few hundred thousand [!!] computers connected overall, mostly ​in universities, ​the military and some businesses.
  
-Researching a 75¢ computer time accounting error (yesthey "​charged for computer ​time" ​in those days)he discovered ​black-hat cracker in the LBL computer systems -- he then spent the next months trying to chase the interloper down.  The story is all about Cliff'​s persistencefrustrations, and the learning he earned in the pursuit: networkshardwaretelecommOOP, Unix and VMS, and more.  Spoiler alert... He caught the bad guy -- Actually, a whole spy ringnot surprisinggiven the KGB's sponsorship during the last years of the Cold War. Stoll wastemporarily at least, acclaimed as a national hero.  ​Actually, quite an intriguing detective story.+In the mid-1980s, Stoll was an astronomer at Lawrence Berkeley Labs who got displaced ​(reassigned?​) to computer system management dutieson DEC VAX computer ​systems (he spells 'em as "Vax", ​as proper noun, not the acronym that it is) running both VMS and Unix (the "​enlightened"​ Berkeley flavor, of course).  The LBL user community included astronomersphysicists, and plenty of other scientific-academic types. ​ Attitudes were informalopensharing, and security-naïve; Stoll'​s world-view, like most of his colleagues, was idealistic, a bit socialisthippie-soakedfully distrustful ​of authority, "the man," and of government in general.  ​Yet he had to turn to members in the usual TLA (three-letter-acronym) organizations for help in his pursuit.
  
-But what struck me mostfrom this perspective of 30-odd years later, is just how innocent and naïve everyone was about computer ​security ​in those days.  Especially ​in academe and the research labs, passwords were viewed as an anti-social obstacle, and were treated cavalierly at most military installations. ​ The bad-guy "broke into" several military VMS systems just by "​guessing" ​the default passwords for the privileged ''​SYSTEM''​ (default password ''​MANAGER''​) and ''​FIELD''​ (''​SERVICE''​) -- Fortunately,​ VMS system installation has progressed considerably beyond those defaults today.  The bad-guy also hit numerous Unix systemsquickly trying ​and succeeding with common ''​root''​ account passwords (including ''​admin''​''​root'' ​and ''​1234''​).  ​Several government contractors (major defense-industry corporations) were "wide open" and available for the bad-guy to leap-frog through to other systemsall while the defense contractors' ​system managers were professing that "our systems are totally secure and impenetrable!" ​ ​Stoll ​showed them all newemerging reality.+Researching a 75¢ computer time accounting error (yesthey "​charged for computer ​time" ​in those days), he discovered a black-hat cracker ​in the LBL computer systems ​-- he then spent the next months trying to chase the interloper down.  The story is all about Cliff'​s persistence,​ frustrations, and the learning he earned in the pursuit: networks, hardware, telecomm, OOPUnix and VMS, and more.  ​Spoiler alert... He caught ​the bad guy -- actuallya whole spy ring; not surprising, given the KGB's sponsorship of early break-in activities during the last years of the Cold War.  ​Stoll ​was, temporarily at least, acclaimed as national hero.  Actuallyquite an intriguing detective and espionage story.
  
-In the intervening 30 years, we've seen not only the rise and domination of today'​s Internet (remember, it was immature when Stoll wrote this book), and the eclipse or transformation of the ad-hoc point-to-point networks, Tymnet, and the dedicated ​milnet.  The U.S. Armed Forces made a big noise about "​security"​ and "​classified/​top-secret,"​ but were largely clueless about its implementation on actual computer systems. ​ The TLA-organizations,​ including the FBI and CIA, were similarly clueless, both about the technology and about the application of then-available cyber-crime laws.  The NSA was no help at all, although it's tiny new offshoot organization,​ the NCSC (National Computer Security Center), became an interested ally.   Since the bad-guys were ultimately tracked to Germany, jurisdictional issues and "not my bailiwick"​ tied Stoll'​s hands right down to the end of the chase.+The author'​s narrative includes a few peculiarities,​ even an occasional technical error, such as his persistence in using the typography "​Vax"​ rather than VAX.  In some places, his explanation of technology or methods is, well... quaint. ​ A real VMS technical howler occurs in the first couple of pages of Chapter 37 (page 185 of the original hardback edition), in a replica of VMS output -- can you spot it? 
 + 
 +But what struck me most, from this perspective of 30-odd years later, is just how innocent and naïve everyone was about computer security in those days.  Especially in academe and the research labs, passwords were viewed as an anti-social obstacle, and were treated cavalierly at most military installations. ​ The bad-guy "broke into" several military VMS systems just by "​guessing"​ the default passwords for the privileged ''​SYSTEM''​ (default password ''​MANAGER''​) and ''​FIELD''​ (''​SERVICE''​) sys-admin accounts -- fortunately,​ secure VMS system installation has progressed considerably beyond those defaults today. ​ The bad-guy also broke numerous Unix systems, trying and succeeding with privileged ''​root''​ account passwords (including ''​admin'',​ ''​root''​ and even "​none,"​ no password!). ​ Several government contractors (major defense-industry corporations) were "wide open" and available for the bad-guy to leap-frog through to other systems; all while the defense contractors'​ system managers were professing that "our systems are totally secure and impenetrable!" ​ Stoll showed them all a new, emerging reality. 
 + 
 +In the intervening 30 years, we've seen not only the rise to domination of today'​s Internet (remember, it was immature when Stoll wrote this book), and the eclipse or transformation of the ad-hoc point-to-point networks, Tymnet, and the dedicated ​MilNet.  The U.S. Armed Forces made a big noise about "​security"​ and "​classified/​top-secret,"​ but were largely clueless about its implementation on actual computer systems. ​ The TLA-organizations,​ including the FBI and CIA, were similarly clueless, both about the technology and about the application of then-available cyber-crime laws.  The NSA was no help at all, although it's tiny new offshoot organization,​ the NCSC (National Computer Security Center), became an interested ally.   Since the bad-guys were ultimately tracked to Germany, jurisdictional issues and "not my bailiwick"​ tied Stoll'​s hands right down to the end of the chase
 + 
 +In the 21st Century, we have of course seen the true rise of computer crime (along with terrorism), and the popularization -- so often misunderstood and misrepresented in the mass media and the corporate boardroom -- of computer security. ​ Our societal response has been corporate security policies, password complexity rules, firewalls and anit-virus software. ​ And yet, corporate and government computer system break-ins and data theft has only escalated. ​ It would seem that the bad-guys have improved their learning, methods and technology much faster than their victims have... 
 + 
 +Why am I recommending that you read a 30+ year-old book?  Well, partly because I'm not only an old VMS and computer geek, but also a //computing history// geek.  Both VAX/VMS and Unix are featured players in this story, a perfect fit for PARSEC and its customers and friends. ​ At three decades remove, Stoll'​s tale of computer crime, and of the adjunct security naïvety, is as relevant today as it was then. 
 + 
 +Yet it's one thing to smile and smirk at the innocence, the immature understanding of computer technology, and of technology'​s impact on business, governance and society. ​ But it makes you wonder: ​ Are we any more sophisticated,​ or wise, about computer security issues and practice today? 
 + 
 +Read this book... and decide for yourself.
the_cuckoos_egg.txt · Last modified: 2019/01/02 04:05 by lricker