Just about every week, we celebrate the anniversaries of great moments in technology history. Come along for a traipse down memory lane! We are going to set our Wayback machine this week to…
…November 1st, 1988, the day fully 10% of the internet was knocked out of commission by a hack that would become known as the Morris Worm.
Robert Morris released the worm, he said, just to see if what he intended to do could be done, which was to get a sense of how big the internet was at the time. In fact, at the time, it wasn’t even really the internet quite yet. It was still ARPANET, which connected the computers at government and educational research facilities around the world.
Morris was a grad student at Cornell University, but to cover his tracks, he hacked a computer at MIT and released his program from there. He intended the worm to be harmless, but he also wanted it to be effective. To make a long story short, he wrote it in such a manner that it could invade any given computer more than once. The problem was that it did, and with each instance, the infected computer would grind slower, and slower, and slower. It was an error Morris hadn’t realized he’d made. This kind of effect would eventually be called Distributed Denial Of Service, or DDOS.
The size of the ARPANET at the time was 60,000 computers. The Morris worm took down 6,000 of them. One of the first people to realize the problem was reportedly Morris himself. By one account, his frantic attempts to get things under control – which, of course, failed – also left clues to his identity that the FBI was able to follow.
Morris ended up being the first person prosecuted under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, which had been passed only two years before. He was convicted, fined, and sentenced to community service.
According to an FBI account from 2018, the episode had a huge impact on a nation just coming to grips with how important — and how vulnerable — computers had become. The idea of cybersecurity became something computer users began to take more seriously.
Just days after the attack, for example, the country’s first computer emergency response team was created in Pittsburgh at the direction of the Department of Defense. It was a well-publicized event. The FBI said it was also the inspiration for more hacking. The 1995 film, “Hackers” includes a depiction of an attack similar to the Morris Worm.
MOVIE AUDIO CLIP: They’re hackers. Hackers penetrate and ravage private and publicly owned computer systems. Hack the planet! Hack the planet!! It’s not just something they do. You sure this sweet machine’s not going to waste? Are you challenging me? It’s who they are.
BRIAN SANTO: Excellent cast in that one, by the way. Matthew Lillard – who later would be an excellent Shaggy in the live action Scooby-Doo movies; Fisher Stevens as the bad guy. It’s also got Johnny Lee Miller and Angelina Jolie with a really bad haircut. Salsa superstar Marc Anthony has a bit part. Didn’t see that coming.
By the way, today Morris is an assistant professor at MIT and a member of the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory there.
And that’s your Weekly Briefing for the week ending November 6th. Thank you for listening.
The Weekly Briefing is available on all the major podcast platforms, but if you get to us via our web site at www.eetimes.com/podcasts, you’ll find a transcript along with links to the stories we mentioned.
This podcast is Produced by AspenCore Studio. It was Engineered by Taylor Marvin and Greg McRae at Coupe Studios. The Segment Producer was Kaitie Huss.
I’m Brian Santo. See you next week.
BRIAN SANTO: Okay, so last question then: Has anybody asked, or do you anticipate, having to simulate cyborgs?
PETER DARNELL: You know, I haven’t thought about that. But I’m sure there are people out there doing it. Well in fact, Elon Musk is drilling holes in heads and inserting sensors, right? He wants you to be able to summon a Tesla with thought instead of having to get up — sort of the ultimate couch potato experience — and then have a little robot wheel you out to the car.
BRIAN SANTO: Are you ready to go for that? I’m not sure I am.
PETER DARNELL: I am not. No.