In 1986 an astronomer trying to trace a 75 cent computer time discrepancy for 10 months eventually found a German hacker selling defense secrets to the KGB

Clifford Stoll is the sole owner and employee of Acme Klein Bottles, which he operates from his home on Colby Street in North Oakland. “Where yesterday’s future is here today,” is one of the company’s many slogans.

Cliff Stoll is the same Cliff Stoll who was famous as a Cold War cybersleuth. Stoll was a wiry, wild-haired 36-year-old with his head in the stars 30 years ago. He had a Ph.D. in astronomy and was working at Lawrence Berkeley Lab’s Keck Observatory, creating telescope optics.

When his grant money ran out, though, his dream came to an end. “LBL recycled used astronomers, which was fortunate for me,” Stoll says now. I was reassigned to the same building’s basement computer centre and began working as a computer systems manager.”

Stoll had only been on the job for two days when his employer approached him with a seemingly insignificant oddity to investigate.

“It was a 75-cent accounting error in the computer usage accounts,” says Stoll, who appeared — and still appears — to have stepped straight out of The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers.

“I was able to trace the mistake back to an unauthorised user who had utilised roughly nine seconds without paying for it.” “Just some kid on campus who was jerking my chain,” Stoll imagined the trespasser was a Cal undergraduate doing it on the spur of the moment.

He spent the following ten months attempting to figure out who the intruder was, sleeping on a cot at the lab instead of going home because whoever it was tended to log on late at night. He compares it to a strand of yarn dangling from a sweater. “You continue to tug on it, only to discover that the thread never ends.” The sweater continues to unravel until you’re left with a pile of tangles.”

He sat back and watched in awe as the hacker used the LBL computers to gain access to military bases across the country, searching for files containing words like nuclear or SDI (short for President Ronald Reagan’s controversial Strategic Defense Initiative programme, a proposed “missile shield” that threatened to further destabilise an already shaky nuclear détente).

It was mockingly dubbed “Star Wars” by critics.) “He was like a cuckoo bird, that deposits its egg in another bird’s nest so that the other bird will hatch it and raise it,” Stoll explains.

The American spy agencies were hesitant to become involved in the case officially, partially because there was question about who had jurisdiction, but largely because they had never dealt with a computer hacking case before.

Hacker was a relatively new phrase at the time. Nonetheless, they were glad to collaborate with Stoll on an unofficial basis, and with their assistance, he was able to track the intruder’s call to Bremen, West Germany.

But how can you persuade the hacker to divulge his or her true identity? Stoll had a simple idea while in the shower one day, a form of sting operation known in the spy business as a “honeypot.”

Operation Showerhead was the name he gave it. Stoll set up a false SDInet folder and filled it with files containing impressive-sounding bureaucratic gobbledygook, knowing that SDI was the mole’s main interest.

The perpetrator bit—and remained on the line long enough for Deutsche Bundespost to track him down in Hanover, West Germany. Markus Hess—now known as the Hanover Hacker—had been selling information to the KGB for years with his ring of spies.

Stoll’s investigation was chronicled in the best-selling book The Cuckoo’s Egg. Following that, PBS aired a NOVA show titled “The KGB, the Computer, and Me,” a docudrama starring Stoll as himself and double as narrator by breaking the “fourth wall.”