Remember the Morris Worm, the first internet felony
Robert Morris (Image credit: Intel Free Press)
On a Wednesday in November 1988, just days before his 24th birthday, Cornell graduate student Robert Morris posted his creation on the Internet. Then he realized what he had done.
With the help of Harvard friends, Morris tried to warn other researchers with an anonymous Usenet post, but it was too late.
Morris’ program spread through ARAPNET and the NASA Internet of Science, infecting hundreds to thousands of systems, depending on who was making the estimates. Overnight, computer systems at six universities, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and other military and research sites came to a standstill.
The problem is not that the worm infects the computer. That alone won’t help much other than exposing security flaws.the problem is it reinfection them, then reinfection They, again and again, until they are blocked by the worm process and cannot run.
The Morris Worm, as it is now called, is not meant to do any harm. Unlike a virus, a worm is a self-replicating program with no harmful “payload.” But Morris doesn’t want his worm to be contained lightly. If he told it not to infect an already infected machine, his clever colleagues could simply feign infection to immunize their systems. Instead, he gave it a 1 in 7 chance of re-infecting an already infected system so it wouldn’t be spoofed.
A floppy disk containing the Morris Worm source code from the Computer History Museum. Photos are taken by Smart Destinations.
He made a terrible mistake.
In 1990, Morris’ attorneys argued that he didn’t mean for the worm to reinfect the machine at such a rate that it became inoperable. It was an accident, for which Morris apologized on the stand. ¹He just wanted to show the UNIX security holes in Send Mail and Finger Demons, the dangers of weak passwords, and other vulnerabilities. Prosecutors, on the other hand, called it a “full-scale attack.” ²
The systems weren’t broken, it was just a bit of a waste of time when they were running again, and the security holes were fixed quickly – a bunch of computer science students stayed up all night that Thursday – so didn’t see Morris’ stunt today anyway vicious assault. This was the first major internet worm, and it was (mostly) an accident.
Morris is best known for being convicted of a felony under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act of 1986, despite claims that the chaos he caused was accidental.
Morris appealed, but the verdict stood: three years of probation, a $10,050 fine, 400 hours of community service, and the costs of his supervision.
Legal precedent and the origin of security
The court case and failed appeal set an important legal precedent: “white hat” hackers don’t have to knowingly cause harm to be convicted of a felony.just with intent to get unauthorized right to use Access to a system is enough – even if they don’t do anything with that access.
It’s the “bad” moments that push researchers to take security seriously.
In retrospect, prosecutor Mark Lasch told The Washington Post in 2013 that he believed Morris should be pardoned. “If he wants, I will represent him,” Lasch told the paper. “He’s not a bad guy. I don’t see any reason why he should have to keep this dress as a shame for the rest of his life.”
It’s the “bad” moments that push researchers to take security seriously. Before worms, the Internet was a relatively small scientific community, and security wasn’t given much thought. After the worm was contained, DARPA created a Computer Emergency Response Team.
Without Morris, others would surely have exposed the risks posed by open or poorly protected servers, but he was the man who lit the fire that gave birth to the modern computer security industry.
Can people get computer viruses?
If they want to get fungus when someone spills coffee on their keys, that’s fine, but the virus belongs to people who can feel and vomit.
More broadly, the Morris Worm spread general awareness of the soon-to-be-commercialized Internet and helped popularize the computer-related terms “virus” and “worm.” At the time, many people had no idea what the internet was—it was the domain of universities, not the everyday Twitter meltdown.
MIT researchers Mark Eichin and Jon Rochlis told WaPo that the media was disappointed that the worm “didn’t even do anything remotely visual” and that it didn’t mark the start of World War III. Computer scientist Eugene Spafford told the paper that a reporter seriously asked people if they could get computer viruses.
For syndicated humorist Erma Bombeck, it’s all absurd.
“Frankly, I don’t like computers posing as humans,” Bombeck wrote in her column after the worm became national news. ⁴ “If they want to get a fungus when someone spills coffee on their keys, okay, but the virus belongs to those who can feel and vomit.”
Morris is now a partner at Y Combinator and a tenured professor at MIT, and interestingly, that’s where his worm originated (it would be stupid if he distributed it from a Cornell computer, he go to school there). As far as I know, since the trial, he has not spoken publicly about the events that made him famous.
1. Lee, TB (November 1, 2013). How a grad student trying to build the first botnet brought the internet to its knees. Washington post.
2. Hackers get reprieve for paralyzing systems. (1990, May 5). Desert News.
3. United States v. Robert Tappan Morris, 928 F.2d 504 (2d Cir. 1991)
4. Bombeck, E. (1988, Nov. 29). State catches computer virus. Victorian Advocate.
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