Federal Internet Law & Policy
An Educational Project
Morris Worm (1988) Dont be a FOOL; The Law is Not DIY
- Agencies
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- Reference
- Cryptography

Crimes Against Network
- Worms, Viruses, Attacks
- Hackers
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- Network Reliability
- Infrastructure Protection
- - Kill Switch

Crimes Over Network
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Info Gathering
- Wiretaps
- Forensics
- Carnivore
- Patriot Act
- Data Retention
- Safe Web Act

- Assessment
- Reliability
- Vulnerabilities

"In the fall of 1988, Morris was a first-year graduate student in Cornell University's computer science Ph.D. program. Through undergraduate work at Harvard and in various jobs he had acquired significant computer experience and expertise. When Morris entered Cornell, he was given an account on the computer at the Computer Science Division. This account gave him explicit authorization to use computers at Cornell. Morris engaged in various discussions with fellow graduate students about the security of computer networks and his ability to penetrate it.

Morris Internet Worm Source Code by Go Boston Card

"In October 1988, Morris began work on a computer program, later known as the Internet "worm" or "virus." The goal of this program was to demonstrate the inadequacies of current security measures on computer networks by exploiting the security defects that Morris had discovered. The tactic he selected was release of a worm into network computers. Morris designed the program to spread across a national network of computers after being inserted at one computer location connected to the network. Morris released the worm into Internet, which is a group of national networks that connect university, governmental, and military computers around the country. The network permits communication and transfer of information between computers on the network.

"Morris sought to program the Internet worm to spread widely without drawing attention to itself. The worm was supposed to occupy little computer operation time, and thus not interfere with normal use of the computers. Morris programmed the worm to make it difficult to detect and read, so that other programmers would not be able to "kill" the worm easily. Morris also wanted to ensure that the worm did not copy itself onto a computer that already had a copy. Multiple copies of the worm on a computer would make the worm easier to detect and would bog down the system and ultimately cause the computer to crash. Therefore, Morris designed the worm to "ask" each computer whether it already had a copy of the worm. If it responded "no," then the worm would copy onto the computer; if it responded "yes," the worm would not duplicate. However, Morris was concerned that other programmers could kill the worm by programming their own computers to falsely respond "yes" to the question. To circumvent this protection, Morris programmed the worm to duplicate itself every seventh time it received a "yes" response. As it turned out, Morris underestimated the number of times a computer would be asked the question, and his one-out-of-seven ratio resulted in far more copying than he had anticipated. The worm was also designed so that it would be killed when a computer was shut down, an event that typically occurs once every week or two. This would have prevented the worm from accumulating on one computer, had Morris correctly estimated the likely rate of reinfection.

"Morris identified four ways in which the worm could break into computers on the network: (1) through a "hole" or "bug" (an error) in SEND MAIL, a computer program that transfers and receives electronic mail on a computer; (2) through a bug in the "finger demon" program, a program that permits a person to obtain limited information about the users of another computer; (3) through the "trusted hosts" feature, which permits a user with certain privileges on one computer to have equivalent privileges on another computer without using a password; and (4) through a program of password guessing, whereby various combinations of letters are tried out in rapid sequence in the hope that one will be an authorized user's password, which is entered to permit whatever level of activity that user is authorized to perform.

"On November 2, 1988, Morris released the worm from a computer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. MIT was selected to disguise the fact that the worm came from Morris at Cornell. Morris soon discovered that the worm was replicating and reinfecting machines at a much faster rate than he had anticipated. Ultimately, many machines at locations around the country either crashed or became "catatonic." When Morris realized what was happening, he contacted a friend at Harvard to discuss a solution. Eventually, they sent an anonymous message from Harvard over the network, instructing programmers how to kill the worm and prevent reinfection. However, because the network route was clogged, this message did not get through until it was too late. Computers were affected at numerous installations, including leading universities, military sites, and medical research facilities. The estimated cost of dealing with the worm at each installation ranged from $200 to more than $53,000.

"Morris was found guilty, following a jury trial, of violating 18 U.S.C. Section 1030(a)(5)(A). He was sentenced to three years of probation, 400 hours of community service, a fine of $10,050, and the costs of his supervision."

- U.S. v. Morris, 928 F.2d 504 (2nd Cir. 1991)

The Morris Worm also resulted in the creation of multiple new federal projects such as CERT with the mission of researching, thwarting, and alerting the network to new possible threats. .

  • "The first widespread worm attack through networked computers occurred in 1988 when Robert Morris, Jr., a Cornell University student and the son of a prominent NSA scientist, developed a program that crippled approximately 6,200 computers and caused over $98 million in damage in approximately 48 hours." - CyberSecurity for the Homeland, Report of the Activities and Findings by the Chairman and Ranking Member Subcommittee on Cybersecurity, Science, and Research Development of the US House of Representatives Select Committee on Homeland Security p 9 (December 2004)
  • July 26, 1989: First Indictment Under Computer Fraud Act, Wired 7/27/2007
  • 16 candles for first Internet worm, CNET 11/5/2004
  • Vanity Fair July 2008 (quoting Keith Bostic " He's not being malicious here. Fires that sucker off. And unfortunately he makes a pretty boneheaded programming error. Instead of doing what he intended, which was kind of, you know, to wander around the Net and have a good time, it just pretty much shut down all the network systems." And quoting Robert Morris as saying that he would rather not talk about it)
  • The Robert Morris Internet Worm (A short explanation of what happened)
  • Zen and the Art of the Internet
  • The Kid Put Us Out of Action, TIME Magazine Nov 14, 1988
  • PBS Nerds2.0.1
  • The Robert Morris Internet Worm (quoting Zen and the Art of the Internet, by Brendan P. Kehoe)