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A Cuckoo’s Fledgling
Although the 1980s are not generally thought of as a decade of innocence, there were, however, a few pockets of juvenile utopia. One such example was the rapidly expanding “online” community, with its assortment of up-and-coming networks that were, to many technically inclined users, a virtual “McDonald’s Play Place” with slides, ball pits and winding tubes to explore, all rapped in a security blanket of innocence. Not until a bully invaded, did another bastion of delayed-maturity, Cliff Stoll, find that “Big Bother” was not eager, or perhaps unable, to repel the invader on his behalf. This led Cliff to take responsibility and stand up to his assailant, causing a transformation throughout many facets of his life. The Cuckoo’s Egg is the story of Cliff Stoll’s maturation into an adult, mirrored by the loss of innocence and youthful-trusting-openness taking place in the network community at the time, catalyzed by a hacker halfway around the world, and necessitated by a nonchalant attitude among the governmental agencies supposed to be responsible for computer security.
A question all parents, and some elder siblings, ask at some point is, “when should I let Jr. stand on his own?” and while it was only a case of bureaucracy not being equipped to quickly respond to a situation, this lack of response forced a man out of his comfort zone, gave him something to care about, and eventually made for an interesting book. It could even be hypothesized that Cliff’s decision to marry was aided by the paradigm shift he experienced during the course of his hacker chase (Stoll 356). The delay of intervention on the part of the government agencies forced Cliff Stoll to leave the sidelines of his life, take responsibility, and become "pro-active–almost rabid–about computer security” (370).
At the beginning of his story, Cliff portrays himself as an academic dreamer (1), literally a start gazer; he seams to be fumbling though life without a cause to get behind, and for that matter not really looking for one. Then when he starts chasing a hacker, thinking that he, “…might learn about phone traces and networks” (35), he struck a blow to a “tar-baby” that would not let him go back to his life of indifference. The entanglement in pursuit of the hacker was elongated, significantly, by the fact that the government did not have contingencies in place to respond to computer crime, coupled with the simple fact that without a quantitative dollar value they did not take losses seriously.
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"A Book report on The Cuckoo?s Egg by Cliff Stoll - A Cuckoo?s Fledgling." 123HelpMe.com. 26 Feb 2020
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The first time Cliff begins to realize that he is changing is just after a call to Zeke Hanson at the NCSC, part of the NSA. Somewhat discouraged by the inaction of the various agencies cliff paces the halls at Lawrence Berkeley Labs. It is here that he realized that no one but himself is driving him to catch this intruder, for the first time in his life he cares about something, on his own, that truly matters. In his own words Cliff states, “Now, nobody was telling me what to do, yet I had a choice: should I quietly let things drop? Or do I take up arms against this sea of troubles?” he continues, “Staring up at the pipes and cables, I realized that I could no longer fool around behind the scenes, an irreverent, zany kid. I was serious. I cared. The network community depended on me, without even knowing it. Was I becoming (oh, no!) responsible?” (133). Directly after this revelation that Cliff had his first breakthrough tracking the hacker. It was a combination of creative use of the telephone, grad’ school weaseling and persistence that proved the hacker was coming through Mitre in McLean, Virginia.
Along with his sense of responsibility, Cliff’s views toward government agencies, agents, and there policies, began to change. Early on, his views were merely loose stereotypes obtained through osmosis from the community of Berkeley surrounding him. Now he was starting to form his own opinions through first hand contact. Realizing that the agencies and there policies had specific purposes: protecting the country and the rights of citizens, and preventing corruption inside the agencies themselves. Even though this could mean that sometimes, the agencies were sluggish and appeared uncooperative. Cliff’s view on the agents themselves was starting to normalize, somewhat, he started to see them as natural humans instead of the robots he had supposed them to be. After a phone conversation with Ed Manning of the CIA, Cliff comments, “Who was I talking to? Weren’t these the people who meddle in Central American politics and smuggle arms to right-wing thugs? Yet the guy I’d just talked to didn’t sound like a villain. He seemed like an ordinary person concerned with a problem” (89)
In the end, Cliff tracked down the hacker was through a combination of good research, creative resourcefulness and personal commitment the cause. A striking contrast to the original attitude Cliff describes, “When I began this hunt, I saw myself as someone engaged in mundane tasks. I did what I was assigned to do, avoiding authority, and keeping myself peripheral to important issues… I never though much about how my work interacted with society … maybe I picked astronomy because it has so little to do with earthly problems” (370). Cliff ends the book classifying himself as, “an astronomer who’s occasionally mistaken for a computer wizard” (399). Yet he has given lectures on network security to various agencies, published an article, and, reluctantly, even held a press conference. All these accomplishments and changes may not have come to pass if it were not for the necessity of Cliff taking self responsibility, because no one else would.