The year was 1986. In the Lawrence Berkeley Lab the computers had impressive amounts of disk space and memory - a hundred megabytes of disk space and one hundred and twenty eight k of memory. They were huge machines too, a long way from the little smart phone in your pocket or even your laptop computer.
In this day and age, computer hacking has become a large part of spying, but in those days it was new. The Internet was in its infancy.
An astronomer called Clifford Stoll was just starting a new job in computer programming when he was brought a puzzle to solve, a small accounting error of an unpaid 75 cents. He thought at first a student had been fooling around, but it was more than that. Much more.
Someone was logging into the network with system manager privileges, under the name "Hunter" which belonged to a staff member who hadn't been there for a year. The system was being used to enter other networks.
Networks that had access to military secrets.
Cliff sometimes slept in the lab because the hacker was logging in at night. Over ten months he got piles of printouts which showed the mysterious hacker logging into military bases. He could have blocked the hacker, but they would only have found another way in and then he would have lost track of them.
It took a while to get the interest of the CIA and FBI. It was all so new - who had even heard of hacking in those days? But with their unofficial help, the hacker was traced to Bremen in Hanover in West Germany. He was a man called Markus Hess, who, with a group of four others, was selling information to the KGB.
Cliff had an idea. If the hacker wanted military secrets, he'd supply them. They didn't have to be real military secrets, of course. A trap was set, a fake military network called SDInet. SDI was the official name for the Reagan program nicknamed Star Wars. It was what Hess had shown most interest in.
The confirmation came in the mail to "SDInet", through a Bulgarian spy, using nonsense from the fake files, from Markus Hess's customers, trying to check they were getting their money's worth.
Hess and his fellow hackers went on trial, but before they could serve their long sentences the Berlin Wall fell and among all the fuss they only received a two year suspended sentence for what they had done. One had apparently committed suicide - if only he had waited...
Clifford Stoll received only a thank you certificate from the CIA for what he had done, but he also wrote a bestselling book about it all, The Cuckoo's Egg, so that was all right. And eventually he began making quirky items called Klein bottles, three-D Möbius strips which sell very well to mathematicians.
Interestingly, these days he is not a great fan of the Internet, which he feels is destroying communication rather than improving it, and is putting people like me(librarians) out of work. I do have to disagree with him about library card catalogues, which he thought were beautiful. If he'd ever had to spend hours first writing out five or more catalogue cards for one book, typing, filing them, then pulling them all out if the book turned out to be missing during stocktake, he would, like us, embrace the library computer technology he sneers at. And by the way, we used to throw out those beautiful artistic cards ourselves when they weren't needed because someone had stolen the book they described!
However, it is fascinating to wonder how a twenty-first century Clifford Stoll would handle a spy-hacking case. I believe hackers are actually hired to point out weaknesses in security systems these days, but it goes on. With the Internet and constantly improving computer technology, the genie has really been let out of the Klein bottle.
For an interview with Clifford Stoll, one of my sources for this post, check out this link.