As I write this, I am listening to my Scott Joplin CD and in some ways I think that Cliff Stoll would find it fitting as this music fits his style of writing (i.e. lively and funny). This book is the story about how Stoll, an astronomer, foiled KGB backed computer hackers. Yes, this story is about computers and security, but don’t turn me off just yet; hang in there and let me tell you about it, before you make up your mind.
Now, if you are still with me, you probably want to know why I think that you should read a book about computer security. We’ll get to that in a minute. Right now, I want to tell you about the plot.
The story opens in 1986 to find Stoll on his first day as a system administrator for the UNIX mainframe housed at Keck Observatory. In an attempt to occupy him on his first day, his co-workers assigned him to find out why there was a $0.75 error in the system’s billing logs. The result: a search for an international hacker that Stoll, a moderately left wing hippie wannabe, spent the next year of his life trying to track down. For someone, who thought that the government was evil and that socialism was a good thing, there were some major hurdles coming his way. When theory met reality, Stoll discovered that he wasn’t so keen on socialistic sharing of information. As things snowballed, Stoll discovered to his surprise (and the disgust of his girlfriend and buddies) that he was talking with the CIA, NSA, FBI, Air Force OSI (Office of Special Investigations) and DOE. By the end of the chase, Stoll was giving reports and lectures to men and women from each of those departments as well as members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Stoll had many moments of crisis when he realized that there were good people in these “bad” organizations that served the well fare of our nation – normal people with families, friends and passions not just trench coats and sniper rifles.
Knowing that most people aren’t interested in topics like this, I wouldn’t bother to even mention this book but for two reasons. First, the principles that Stoll tries to teach the reader regarding computer security are even more important today than they were way back in the dark ages of the internet. (I remember those days; I feel old.)
Secondly, this book is genuinely funny and interesting. If you enjoy movies about criminal investigations, you will probably enjoy this. Stoll writes from a mixed first and third person point of view. Actually, this works quite well for him as it makes you feel as if you are his friend. Picture your best friend telling you a story about his vacation. This method of storytelling is exactly how Stoll writes. Even if you are bored with computers generally and find them confusing, I am fairly certain that you will find this book an easy and enjoyable read. (I mean, really, who puts their chocolate chip cookie recipe in the foot notes?)
Just one warning; Cliff Stoll is not a Christian. He has no problems dropping in swear words if it is an accurate representation of the facts. There aren’t too many of these, but there are some (the worst in the first chapter). I would rate this title as a PG-13. Stoll also lives with his girlfriend and another female roommate. Their morals are not acceptable, but Stoll doesn’t spend much time detailing these.
So what are your thoughts? Is this a title that would interest you? Why or why not?