The Morris worm saw a graduate student crash the Internet in 1988

Morris worm

If you ever think you screwed up in college, you definitely have nothing on the creator of The Morris Worm. It was launched on November 2, 1988 by Cornell University PhD student Robert Morris Jr, and it broke the internet.

There were no bottles popping in the crash, just three rows that could launch what Morris and his colleague had coined the brilliant design: a self-replicating worm that could infect one computer, turning it into a base from which it could infect another.

The worm allegedly began its reign of terror from MIT’s Artificial Intelligence Lab in Cambridge, Massachusetts, but Morris himself was in Ithaca, New York. It was at 8:00 pm that fateful day that he remotely accessed prep.ai.mit.edu, a VAX 11/750 computer, and executed three files that would forever change the way we viewed the Internet.

Morris’ intentions were to see how far a group of self-propagating computer worms could travel across the Internet, explains Scott Shapiro in his new book Fancy Bear Goes Phishing: The Dark History of the Information Age, in five extraordinary hacks. However, the first signs that his brilliant experiment may have gone awry first surfaced when he returned from dinner to find the network was slow.

In his absence, the Morris Worm had made its way to Pittsburgh in minutes. It took less than three hours for it to spread from its point of origin in Ithaca to Cornell, where Morrison realized that the worm was not only innocently infecting computers, it was also crashing them.

And then, things took a sinister turn.

Morris worm

Morris Worm’s source code is now contained on a floppy disc in the Computer History Museum.

At 1:05 am, the worm penetrated Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, a site responsible for securing the country’s nuclear arsenal, Shapiro wrote in Fancy Bear is phishing. Soon the worm had crept into Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, the site of the Manhattan Project and the world’s first atomic bombs. Roberts’ brilliant project no longer seemed so brilliant.

Whatever scientific experiment Morris planned, its academic potential was not appreciated by Cornell University which said in a report on the worm that while there was no direct evidence of malicious intent, given the apparent knowledge of systems and networks, Morris knew or clearly they should have known that such a consequence was certain, given the design of the worm. As such, Morris appears not to have considered the more likely consequences of his actions. At the very least, such a failure constitutes a reckless disregard of those probable consequences.

You can find out more about The Morris Worm in an excerpt from Fancy Bear is phishing which appears in the Book Bites section of the 11th issue of CURIOUS, the free IFLSciences e-magazine, along with an interview with author and law and philosophy professor Shapiro about the hacks that inspired his book.

curious morris worm
Learn more about The Morris Worm and the history of hacking in our Book Bites and Meet The Author in CURIOUS features, now available. Image credit: IFLScience

As he told IFLScience, the history of hacks is often a more complex story than meaningless warfare from behind a keyboard.

While the history of hacking sounds like a technical history, it’s actually a human history. This may seem counterintuitive given that hacking is typically associated with highly skilled computer programmers who write code to gain unauthorized access to data on the Internet, Shapiro told IFLScience. To truly understand the root causes of hacking, we need to consider the interplay between what I call upcode and downcode.

Downcode is the technical computer code that hackers use to gain access to systems and data. It’s the code literally under your fingertips. Upcode, on the other hand, refers to the social, political, and institutional forces that shape the world around us, including personal beliefs, social norms, legal norms, company policies, professional ethics, and the terms of service of the website. While computers work with downcode, humans work with upcode. And upcode downcode forms.

Ultimately, hackers exploit human vulnerabilities that give rise to downcode insecurities. That is why it is a mistake to think of cybersecurity as solely or even primarily an engineering problem. It’s more helpful to think of hacking as a human upcode problem. By examining the interaction between upcode and downcode, we can gain a deeper understanding of how hackers operate, why they do what they do, and what steps we can take to prevent future attacks.

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