On November 2, 1988, Robert Tappan Morris, the son of a famous Bell Labs cryptographer who was fired as a PhD student at Cornell University, published the so-called “Morris worm” by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Morris said his intention was “to expose the inadequacies of current security measures in computer networks by exploiting security flaws [he] has discovered. “The worm would slow down computer operations so much that it would be unusable.
Morris had notable success, as in twenty-four hours the worm disabled approximately ten percent of Internet-connected computers for 72 hours, including computers from universities such as UC-Berkley, Harvard, Johns Hopkins, MIT, Princeton, and Stanford, and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.NASA and the Pentagon among many others and remained infected for almost 72 hours. The Government Accountability Office put the cost of the damage at $ 100,000 to $ 10 million.
On that day in 1989, Morris became the first person charged under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, 18 USC Section 1030. He was convicted and sentenced to three years probation plus 400 hours of community and a fine of $ 10,050. Morris’ belief was upheld on appeal. US v Morris, 928 F.2d 504 (1991).
As the FBI explains:
The episode had a tremendous impact on a nation grappling with the importance of – and vulnerable – computers. The idea of cybersecurity became something that computer users were taking increasingly seriously. For example, just a few days after the attack, the country’s first computer emergency team was set up in Pittsburgh on the instructions of the Department of Defense. The developers also started developing the much-needed intrusion detection software.
At the same time, the Morris worm inspired a new generation of hackers and a wave of internet-controlled attacks that plague our digital systems to this day. Accidental or not, the first internet attack 30 years ago was a wake-up call for the country and the coming cyber age.
Morris continued his PhD. in philosophy and applied science from Harvard. Ironically, he joined the MIT faculty in 1999 and is now a professor of electrical engineering and computer science.
In 1995, Morris co-founded Viaweb, a startup developing software for building online stores that Yahoo! bought for $ 49 million and posted on Yahoo! Business. A decade later, he co-founded Y Combinator, which has founded over 2,000 companies totaling over $ 155 billion, including Airbnb, Automation, DoorDash, Dropbox, Instacart, Stripe and Twitch.
Selected photos: Go Card USA, Science Museum – Morris Internet Worm (CC BY-SA 2.0); Trevor Blackwell, Robert Tappan Morris (CC BY-SA 3.0).