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Clifford Stoll

Counter-Intuitive Tech Thinker
Author, The Cuckoo's Egg

A quirky take on technology and hacking.

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Biography

Clifford Stoll gained worldwide attention as a cyberspace sleuth when he wrote his bestselling book, The Cuckoo’s Egg: Tracking a Spy Through the Maze of Computer Espionage, the page-turning true story of how he caught a ring of hackers who stole secrets from military computer systems and sold them to the KGB. He has become a leading authority on computer security. His lecture presentations are energetic and entertaining, and showcase Clifford’s dry wit and penetrating views. Clifford Stoll is a commentator for MSNBC and an astronomer at the University of California Berkeley.

The Cuckoo’s Egg inspired a whole category of books on capturing computer criminals. He began by investigating a 75-cent error in time billing for the university computer lab for which he was systems manager and ended up uncovering a ring of industrial espionage. Working for a year without support from his employers or the government, he eventually tracked the lead to a German spy hacking into American computer networks involved with national security and selling the secrets to the KGB for money and cocaine.

Since catching the "Hanover Hacker" (Hanover, West Germany), Stoll has become a leading expert on computer security and has given talks for both the CIA and the National Security Agency, as well as the U.S. Senate.

Stoll is also the author of two engaging and counter-intuitive critiques of technology’s role in culture written in his trademark quiet and folksy style full of droll wit and penetrating insights. In Silicon Snake Oil: Second Thoughts on the Information Highway, Stoll, who has been netsurfing for fifteen years, does an about-face, warning that the promises of the Internet have been oversold and that we will pay a high price for its effects on real human interaction. High Tech Heretic: Why Computers Don’t Belong in the Classroom and Other Reflections by a Computer Contrarian asks readers to check the assumptions that dominate our thinking about technology and the role of computers, especially in our classrooms. As one who loves computers as much as he disdains them, he admits to being deeply ambivalent about computers, and questions the role of networks in our culture.

Credentials

  • MSNBC Commentator
  • Berkeley astronomer
  • Author, The Cuckoo’s Egg, Silicon Snake Oil, and High Tech Heretic

Books

Cuckoo’s Egg

Inside the World of Computer Espionage

Clifford Stoll

Cliff Stoll was an astronomer turned systems manager at Lawrence Berkeley Lab when a 75-cent accounting error alerted him to the presence of an unauthorized users on his system. The hacker's code name was "Hunter" — a mystery invader hiding inside a twisting electronic labyrinth, breaking into U.S. computer systems and stealing sensitive military and security information. Stoll began a one-man hunt of his own, spying on the spy — and plunging into an incredible international probe that finally gained the attention of top U.S. counter-intelligence agents. The Cuckoo's Egg is his wild and suspenseful true story — a year of deception, broken codes, satellites, missile bases and the ultimate sting operation — and how one ingenious American trapped a spy ring paid in cash and cocaine, and reporting to the KGB.

Doubleday; 1st edition (September 26, 1989)
Republished paperback by Gallery Books (September 13, 2005)

High Tech Heretic

Reflections of a Computer Contrarian

Clifford Stoll

The cry for and against computers in the classroom is a topic of concern to parents, educators, and communities everywhere. Now, from a Silicon Valley hero and bestselling technology writer comes a pointed critique of the hype surrounding computers and their real benefits, especially in education. In High-Tech Heretic, Clifford Stoll questions the relentless drumbeat for "computer literacy" by educators and the computer industry, particularly since most people just use computers for word processing and games — and computers become outmoded or obsolete much sooner than new textbooks or a good teacher.

As one who loves computers as much as he disdains the inflated promises made on their behalf, Stoll offers a commonsense look at how we can make a technological world better suited for people, instead of making people better suited to using machines.

Doubleday (October 19, 1999)

Praise

"An often funny and acerbic look at the new computer priesthood."
The Christian Science Monitor

"Stoll's long experience with technology gives him authority. . . . His claims are based on facts, logic and common sense."
The Seattle Times

"Wonderful. . . . Stoll has Internetted there, computed that and seen through the hype about computers and education."
Chicago Sun-Times

"When Stoll says something, gearheads and non-gearheads alike usually listen. Not only is he an entertaining writer, but he is completely sensible in his approach about the role computers should play in our lives."
The San Diego Union-Tribune

"Wonderful...Should be in the hands of every school administrator ready to sign a check for more computers."
Chicago Sun-Times

Silicon Snake Oil

Second Thoughts on the Information Highway

Clifford Stoll

Ah, the information highway. No phenomenon in modern times has received more attention, held out more promise, nor achieved more mythic stature than the information highway. This computer utopia is said to educate, entertain, and inform. It will supply us with vast amounts of information, put us in close touch with one another and turn our fractious world into a global village. Not so, says Cliff Stoll. Stoll knows. He's the author of The Cuckoo's Egg — the bestselling book about how he caught German spies prowling through computers — and a genuine legend on the Internet. Involved with networks since their earliest days, Stoll has watched the Internet grow from an improbable research project into a communications juggernaut. He knows computers; he loves his networked community. And yet... Stoll asks: when do the networks really educate, and when are they simply diversions from learning? Is electronic mail useful, or might it be so much electronic noise? Why do online services promise so much, yet deliver so little? What makes computers so universally frustrating? Silicon Snake Oil is the first book that intelligently questions where the Internet is leading us. Stoll looks at our network as it is, not as it's promised to be. Yet this is no diatribe against technology, nor is it one more computer jock adding his voice to the already noisy chorus debating the uses of the networks. Following his personal inquiry into the nature of computers, Cliff meets a Chinese astronomer with an abacus, gets lost in a cave, and travels across the Midwest on a home-brew railroad cart. And, at the end of the journey, we're all a bit wiser about what this thing called the information highway really was, is, could, and should be. Grounded in common sense, Silicon Snake Oil is a meditation full of passion but devoid of hysteria. Anyone concerned with computers and our future will find it startling, wholly original, and ultimately wise.

Anchor; 1st Anchor Books Ed edition (March 1, 1996)

Topics

Cliff tailors each presentation to the needs of his audience and is not limited to the topics we have listed below. These are subjects that have proven valuable to customers in the past and are meant only to suggest his range and interests. Please ask us about any subject that interests you; we are sure that we can accommodate you.

A Skeptical View of Computing

Does daily life require computers, digital networks? They’re irrelevant to cooking, driving, visiting, negotiating, eating, hiking, dancing, speaking, and gossiping. You don’t need a keyboard to bake bread, play touch football, piece a quilt, build a stone wall, recite a poem, or say a prayer. Virtual communities chatter about cybersex, cybersluts, and cyberporn, but the real thing isn’t there.

Rather than bringing us together, might our online obsession be isolating us from each other? Do computers belong in classrooms — or might they get in the way of learning? Why do libraries spend so much on multimedia gizmos rather than books, journals and librarians? If computers are so great for efficiency, how come American business productivity has been essentially flat over the past two decades? Most of all, what’s lost when we plop down in front of our keyboard?

Its time to inject a few notes of skepticism into the utopian dreams of a digital wonderland.

Stalking the Wily Hacker

Someone breaks into your computer. What do you do? Slam the door? Call the police? Ignore the problem?

For a year, a German computer programmer broke into my system, along with over forty other computers around the world. By silently tracking him back, I discovered that he was a spy, selling software and military data to the Soviet KGB. A couple of years ago, he was convicted of espionage.

What techniques did he use to crack into computers? Where are the holes in our systems? How do you trace someone across the worldwide computer networks? Who was willing to help -- and who wasn’t? Come hear "Stalking the Wily Hacker" and find out. A fun time is guaranteed for all.

Videos

Stoll on . . . everything | TED

Feedback

A state chamber of commerce:
Cliff was a breath of fresh air for our group. His talk was dynamic and well received. I would highly recommend him as a speaker to any group. In our 32 year history he is the first speaker we had that ran around, jumped on chairs and almost fell off the podium. It was wonderful.

He was very good. He never stopped moving. The message was well thought out and presented. In spite of the 'antics' - all over the stage, off the stage, incorporating audience members - there did seem to be method and thought behind the words. The speech was compelling and well received.

A college lecture series:
Cliff, you were one of those great presenters. Your lecture was one of the most exciting closures we have ever had for our Series. As the letter to the Editor of our local paper reads, ‘it was surprising and unique’…and full of substance. … Thank you for being a part of our event. I believe it was the finest series we have presented in our eleven-year history. You made it wonderful.

A university sponsored lecture:
The Clifford Stoll lecture was the final presentation in The College of Liberal Arts Program Series, Focus on Media. It was a tremendous success. We finally had to turn out the lights in order to get people to leave.