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Via [personal profile] adrian_turtle.

This is an interesting book both for itself and as a historical document.

Stoll worked as an astronomer at Berkeley for a while in the middle eighties, and then his grant funding ran out and he found himself working as a computer programmer at Berkeley instead (this would be 1986). A trivial computer accounting discrepancy discovered his second day on the job-- seventy-five cents worth of billable computing time-- led him into a year-long hacker chase that involved more talks with people from government agencies than anyone from Berkeley is ever comfortable with, ten-hour days making phone calls, nights sleeping under his desk with a pager on his belt to alert him to the hacker's activity, and a homebuilt keystroke logger that printed out everything the hacker typed. The guy turned out to be in Germany, and to be selling information to the KGB, but Stoll would have done the same amount of legwork for a high school student in Des Moines; the chase became an obsession, and then the ethical concepts of network security and the trust that users ought to be able to place in a system kicked in, and he found he couldn't stop.

What I mean about this book as a historical document is not just that when Stoll traces his hacker to Germany the first question anyone asks him about it is 'East or West?', but that he keeps running into a total lack of government policy for how to deal with the situation. It is utterly fascinating for me, sitting here in the age of Wikileaks and /b/, to realize that there was a time when you could go to the FBI with hard evidence of somebody walking through multiple military computers at will doing searches which obviously indicate attempts at sensitive data, and the FBI response would be 'prove to us that we should care'. The relatively recent past is still another country. This book is a compelling reminder that if your brain moves on internet time, in which yesterday was three news cycles ago, you are probably forgetting that things were really, really different not so very long ago, and are going to be unrecognizable again pretty soon.

It's also a fast, fun read. Stoll's prose is best described as workmanlike, but it isn't terrible, and the down-the-rabbit-hole factor of an astronomer from Berkeley finding himself lecturing to members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and giving interviews to the New York Times is entertaining. Stoll explains the computer details pretty clearly, which is good not only because it gets technical but because nowadays chunks of it are obsolete and therefore even less accessible.

I think my major problem with the book is his reluctance to admit how much he loves hacker-chasing. He keeps talking about how much he wants to get back to astronomy, and about how much his pager disturbs his domestic tranquility, and how many people other than himself would be more qualified to do this, but you can tell he's having the time of his life. It bleeds through in every paragraph, and I just wish he'd say it outright, as it feels a little disingenuous. I can understand a lack of willingness to publicly enthuse over a life of sleeping on university floors and continuously being on the phone with people four time zones away; it's just, he was entirely self-motivated (no one was encouraging him to do this, and in fact multiple people on multiple occasions told him to stop because it wasn't worth it), and ethical considerations were only part of the motivation. A lot of it was the thrill of pure research and the pleasure of the hunt, and those are perfectly valid pleasures. I don't understand why he keeps insisting throughout the book that his calling is astronomy, especially since he keeps characterizing that as pretty boring. Ah well. Maybe he's gotten over it in the years since.


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