The main point of The Cuckoo’s Egg is not what I expected. The book describes Clifford Stoll’s first year as a hacker-hunting system administrator for Berkeley. I expected a dry, technical description of computer networks. Although the story briefly addresses the technical details of network hacking, it contains more human drama and politics. The book’s main point is philosophical: networks cannot rely on government for security. The digital world is a wild country where the only set rule is, “Every man (computer) for himself.”
How long does it take city police to respond to a reported robbery? Typically less than a day. Often less than hours. Stoll repeatedly points this out as he narrates his frustrated attempts to get government assistance. 75% of the book repeats an incident that occurred weekly throughout 1986: Stoll found the hackers attacking U.S. Government systems. He called the CIA, NSA, FBI, Air Force, or Army. The organization thanked him (sort of), but ultimately shrugged their shoulders. It took a year of Stoll’s nagging to eventually to shut down the hackers.
This disturbing account of ignored pleas for protection indicate an important caveat to the social contract. Although we depend upon government authority to provide physical security and protection of property rights, government is nearly powerless to defend digital rights. We cannot surrounded the United States’ digital land with armies to fight foreigners. Instead, every man (computer) must build his own fortress for protection. Venture into the Internet without a firewall or virus protection if you dare, but be prepared to face digital threats alone.