On the final evening of the 2014 Out of Excuses Workshop and Retreat, Mary Robinette Kowal and I sat with students and talk about historical stuff, and Mary brought up some fun 18th- and 19th- century spy techniques.
I realized that the 1980’s are far enough back that the spy tech from that era seems weird and outdated. And that reminded me of a book I skimmed while working at Novell in the ’90s. I spouted a quick synopsis at the students, and realized that it might be fun for me to re-read.
So I bought a copy online and re-read it on my iPad, and as I did so I realized that the reason I was able to do this is because guys like Clifford Stoll took it upon themselves to build “trustworthiness” into the digital and social structures of the Internet 25 years ago.
The Cuckoo’s Egg, by Cliff Stoll, is a non-fiction account of the author’s discovery of a far-reaching, insidious hack, uncovered because of what looked like an accounting error. The technology he describes is antiquated, but the logic behind the hacker’s exploits remains valid today, and Stoll’s attempts to rally the authorities demonstrate how very unprepared we were back in 1987 for the big disruptions of next 20 years.
It’s dry in spots, and didactic in others, but I plowed through it voraciously. Stoll’s descriptions of the Internet of 1987 seem kind of quaint, but they’re also spot-on for his time. His political views were very refreshing–he writes as a self-proclaimed liberal hippie, and yet he had to work with the FBI, the CIA, the NSA, the Army, and the Air Force for an entire year. This was pretty conflicting for him, and for his friends, and was every bit as interesting to me as the computer stuff.
I met Cliff Stoll in 2006 at an Apache conference where he and I were keynote speakers. It was kind of cool to realize that he was one of the giants upon whose shoulders my entire business model was standing, and yet we had lots of common ground. In re-reading The Cuckoo’s Egg I found a chapter in which young Clifford Stohl sat down and talked to a Nobel Prize-winning scientist, asking for advice, and yes, there seemed to be some symmetry there for me.