Little Bits of History

As the Worm Turns

Posted in History by patriciahysell on July 26, 2011

Morris worm disk with source code

July 26, 1989: Robert T. Morris is indicted by a federal grand jury, the first person to be brought to the courts by the 1986 Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. While a graduate student at Cornell University, Morris released a computer worm. He claimed he was trying to determine the size of the Internet. He released the worm via MIT to conceal its origination from Cornell. It was supposed to count how many computers were part of the Net. All did not go exactly as planned.

The Morris worm was released on November 2, 1988 and was one of the first worms distributed via the Internet. The worm was supposed to first check to see if the computer in question had been counted. But Morris wanted to be sure that he was not receiving a false positive. This would have destroyed the worm. Therefore, Morris wrote that it was supposed to copy itself, even if the response to the already checked question was “yes” 1 out of every 7 times. This replication level caused the worm to spread far more rapidly than he had anticipated.

Because of the rapid spread and rapid replication, eventually machines would not only slow down, but come to a complete stop. The denial of service was unintentional, but still a problem. It is said that 6000 major UNIX based computers were infected. The cost of the damage, according to the US GAO was between $10 and $100 million. The loss of productivity caused by the worm was said to range from $20,000 to $530,000 per machine affected.

DARPA responded by funding a central point for experts to coordinate responses to these types of emergencies. The Morris worm is sometimes called the Great Worm reminiscent of the Tolkien creatures, Scathla and Glaurung. Morris was brought to trial and was sentenced to three years probation, 400 hours of community service, and fined $10,000 plus the cost of his supervision. This was far less than the guidelines had called for. Today, Professor Morris is teaching at MIT in the department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. He also co-founded the online store Viaweb, one of the first such stores.

“A computer worm is a self-replicating malware computer program, which uses a computer network to send copies of itself to other nodes (computers on the network) and it may do so without any user intervention.” – Wikipedia

“The problem with troubleshooting is that trouble shoots back.” – Unknown

“Computers have lots of memory but no imagination.” – Unknown

“If you have any trouble sounding condescending, find a Unix user to show you how it’s done.” – Scott Adams

Also on this day:
The Polite Bandit – In 1875, a strange, but polite, man commits his first robbery
First Railway – In 1803, Surrey Iron Railway opened.