The Morris Worm Turns 30

How the historic Internet worm attack of 1988 has shaped security – or not.

"The easier way for them is to do 'security' at the lowest cost," Spaf says. "So it isn't that we didn't learn things from the Morris Worm. It reinforced things we already knew."

Vixie's recollection of that time in '88 echoes the same sentiment. "We all kind of knew the equipment we had was not safe and should not be put on the Internet, and it could be attacked and broken into often," he says.

Robert T. Morris Today
The actual cost of the Morris Worm attack is unknown but is somewhere from $100,000 to $10 million, according to US General Accounting Office estimates.

Morris, now 53, has kept a relatively low profile over the years. He was the first US citizen to be indicted under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act in 1989 and was convicted in 1990. Morris served no prison time but was sentenced to three years of probation, 400 hours of community service, and a $10,050 fine.

Currently a tenured professor at MIT and a member of the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL), Morris went on to co-found a Web software firm in 1995 that was later sold to Yahoo. In 2005, he co-founded Y Combinator, a seed-state funding firm. Morris did not respond to a request for an interview for this article.

History has proved to be relatively kind to the Morris case: Malicious cyberattacks, including more destructive worms, have become par for the course in the past decade or so. "Of all the various parties who have been identified, let alone prosecuted for any criminal misbehavior, he has been exemplary in what he did at the time: admitting up front what he did, making restitution, and going on and having a career," Spaf says. "He did the wrong thing at the wrong time and was made an example of."

Morris' coding errors in the worm are what caused the disruptive attack. "It had a bug like many software applications. I believe he didn't mean for it to go from east to west in a couple of hours. Once it got out, there was nothing he could do," Guel says.

Ron Gula, the founder and former CEO of Tenable Network Security, was in high school when the Morris Worm hit. He says he studied published accounts of the worm, which sparked his interest in the security field. "Reading the mailing list references for the worm's exploits influenced me to start cataloguing both vulnerabilities and their associated exploits, which more or less started my career as a penetration tester," Gula says.

Worms aren't going anywhere as long as enough online devices are able to be remotely infected, he says. "I tend to believe that there are more secure computers connected to the Internet than even before, but there are also more unsecure computers connected to the Internet than even before. This gives a botnet or worm author an ecosystem they can exploit to let their worm live," says Gula, president of Gula Tech Adventures.

But given the pervasiveness of connected devices and critical infrastructure today, there's obviously much more at stake in the event of the next big Internet attack. "The next crisis could be very big, wiping of disks, destruction of infrastructure – and we aren't thinking about these extremes or edge cases," Spaf says. "It would be worse now than it was 30 years ago."

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Robert Lemos, Contributing Writer, Dark Reading
Robert Lemos, Contributing Writer, Dark Reading
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