A profile of Cliff "Cuckoo's Egg" Stoll, a pioneering "hacker hunter"

Cliff Stoll (previously) is a computing legend: his 1989 book The Cuckoo's Egg tells the story of how he was drafted to help run Lawrence Berkeley Lab's computers (he was a physicist who knew a lot about Unix systems), and then discovered a $0.75 billing discrepancy that set him on the trail of East German hackers working for the Soviet Union, using his servers as a staging point to infiltrate US military networks.

The book is superbly written and fascinating, and it inspired a generation of cybersecurity practitioners (I referenced it in my 2008 novella The Things that Make Me Weak and Strange Get Engineered Away). Stoll himself is charming and curmudgeonly, the author of early tech-skeptic titles like 1995's Silicon Snake Oil, and he is the proprietor of the Acme Klein Bottle company, which sells the hand-blown Klein bottles (basically a Mobius Strip extruded into the third dimension) that he makes (he also makes ones you can drink out of, called "Klein Steins"). I've given Acme Klein Bottles to friends and family as gifts and they're always well-received.

I had the enormous pleasure of meeting Stoll this year at Atlseccon in Halifax, and he was every bit as funny and interesting in person as you could have asked for.

Writing in Wired, Andy Greenberg offers a candid, personal profile of Stoll at his home in Oakland, whose cellar is filled with boxes of Klein bottles that Stoll retrieves with a homemade robotic fork-lift.

Stoll's work in the Cuckoo's Egg affair presaged many of the common tools used by security pros today, like the ubiquitous "intrusion detection system," as well as "honeypots." And Stoll's work also inspired one of the first cybersecurity research centers, at Lawrence Livermore National Labs. Security researchers still treat the book as a touchstone and find new lessons in it.

Stoll is still passionate about the subject, insisting that invading remote systems is antisocial conduct, telling Greenberg, "Don’t think you’re licensed to break into computers because you’re clever. No! You have a responsibility to those who have built those systems, those who maintain those networks, who built the delicate software. You have a responsibility to your colleagues like me to behave ethically."

That fantasy version of Cliff Stoll is hard to make out in the mad scientist, klein bottle-selling Cliff Stoll of today. But, it turns out, underneath 30 years of layered polymath whimsy, the obsessed hacker hunter is still there.

After he finishes giving me a tour of his workshop, Stoll sits me down in his cluttered dining room lined with books, including a full 20-volume set of the Oxford English Dictionary, one of the first things he says he bought with his Cuckoo's Egg advance. He starts reminiscing, telling a story about his hacker hunting that isn’t in the book.

After Stoll helped German police trace the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab’s hacker to an address in Hanover, they arrested the intruder—a young man named Markus Hess. The police found that Hess, along with four other hackers, had together decided to sell their stolen secrets to the Soviets.

Meet The Mad Scientist Who Wrote the Book on How to Hunt Hackers [Andy Greenberg/Wired]

(Image: Acme Klein Bottles)