Profile of Cliff Stoll, whose memoir The Cuckoo’s Egg, which traces the first known case of state-sponsored hacking, inspired a generation of cybersecurity pros (Andy Greenberg/Wired)

The world of computer security is full of bright young men and women. Many college students and recent graduates find their way to the cyber world through hacking. ¬†What happens when your young hacker decides to take their talents into the world of government espionage? That’s what happened to Cliff Stoll. On March 11, 1983, Stoll was working on a contract for a California agency when he became aware of a major breach in U.S. government computers. He traced the attack back to the National Security Agency (NSA) and shared his findings with the FBI. He also alerted the NSA of the danger. His warnings went unheeded, and the agency lost track of him. He was fired and sentenced to one year in prison, despite doing nothing wrong.

What is Profile of Cliff Stoll?

Cliff Stoll (1953-1994) is perhaps best known for his book “The Cuckoo’s Egg” (1989) about computer viruses, a subject he wrote about in detail while working at the US Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C. He also was involved in creating the Internet Worm (TCP/IP) and wrote two other books on computer security. Stoll was born and raised in San Diego, California, and graduated from Stanford University in 1966 with a degree in mathematics. He earned a master’s degree in systems science from MIT in 1970 and received a doctorate in computer science from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1972.  

Cliff Stoll’s Early Life and Career

Cliff Stoll was born in San Diego, California, on April 13, 1955. He grew up in La Jolla and graduated from high school in 1974. After graduating from the University of California, Irvine, he moved to the Bay Area. There, he found employment at a small start-up company called Ampex Corporation. In 1978, while working for Ampex, he became the first programmer hired at Berkeley Software Design. He continued to work until 1989 when he left for a venture capital firm, Sequoia Capital. During his years at Sequoia, Stoll developed a reputation as a software genius. Still, he also spent much time writing books, producing movies and other media projects, and lecturing at conferences.

How Cliff Stoll memoir The Cuckoo’s Egg inspired a generation of cybersecurity pros?

Stoll spent most of his life working in technology, with a brief interruption during the early 1990s when he spent several months in a U.S. federal prison for hacking into computers belonging to the U.S. Department of Defense. After that, he returned to work as a researcher for Digital Equipment Corporation and a systems administrator for NASA, the National Security Agency, and the U.S. Census Bureau. His work focused on computer network security and led to the discovery of the first known instance of cyber espionage carried out by a government. Stoll’s book, The Cuckoo’s Egg: Tracking a Spy Through the Maze of Computer Espionage (which became a New York Times best seller), was published in 1993.


Cliff Stoll was a man with many interests, hobbies, and passions who was an expert on computer security. His interests included philosophy, history, travel, and even the paranormal. And he loved to share what he knew with anyone who would listen. But the story that made Cliff into the computer security guru and world-famous computer scientist we know today wasn’t his work in cyber security, although that helped. It was his book. He became famous because of a book he wrote about a search for a hacker who had broken into the Pentagon’s computers and stolen documents from the Department of Defense.


1. Who was Cliff Stoll?

Cliff Stoll was a computer programmer who wrote the first known case of state-sponsored hacking. He worked for the U.S. Navy in the 1970s and was assigned to a task force that was responsible for protecting the Navy’s computers. In 1979, Stoll noticed that someone had tried to hack into the computer network and was able to trace the hacker back to the Soviet Union.

2. What happened next?

Stoll reported his findings to the CIA, and the agency then launched a massive operation to break into the network.

3. What did Stoll do after he realized what was happening?

Stoll quit his job at the Navy and joined the National Security Agency (NSA) as a computer security specialist. He also began writing a book about his experiences called The Cuckoo’s Egg. The book became a bestseller, inspiring a generation of cybersecurity professionals.

4. How did The Cuckoo’s Egg affect the world of cybersecurity?

The book made cybersecurity professionals realize they needed to be more vigilant about securing their networks. It also highlighted the importance of recognizing when an attack is taking place.

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