30 years ago, the world's first cyberattack set the stage for modern cybersecurity challenges

Publication Type: 
Other Writing
Publication Date: 
November 1, 2018

Back in November 1988, Robert Tappan Morris, son of the famous cryptographer Robert Morris Sr., was a 20-something graduate student at Cornell who wanted to know how bigthe internet was – that is, how many devices were connected to it. So he wrote a program that would travel from computer to computer and ask each machine to send a signal back to a control server, which would keep count.

The program worked well – too well, in fact. Morris had known that if it traveled too fast there might be problems, but the limits he built in weren’t enough to keep the program from clogging up large sections of the internet, both copying itself to new machines and sending those pings back. When he realized what was happening, even his messages warning system administrators about the problem couldn’t get through.

His program became the first of a particular type of cyber attack called “distributed denial of service,” in which large numbers of internet-connected devices, including computers, webcams and other smart gadgets, are told to send lots of traffic to one particular address, overloading it with so much activity that either the system shuts down or its network connections are completely blocked.

As the chair of the integrated Indiana University Cybersecurity Program, I can report that these kinds of attacks are increasingly frequent today. In many ways, Morris’s program, known to history as the “Morris worm,” set the stage for the crucial, and potentially devastating, vulnerabilities in what I and others have called the coming “Internet of Everything.”

Unpacking the Morris worm

Worms and viruses are similar, but different in one key way: A virus needs an external command, from a user or a hacker, to run its program. A worm, by contrast, hits the ground running all on its own. For example, even if you never open your email program, a worm that gets onto your computer might email a copy of itself to everyone in your address book.

In an era when few people were concerned about malicious software and nobody had protective software installed, the Morris worm spread quickly. It took 72 hours for researchers at Purdue and Berkeley to halt the worm. In that time, it infected tens of thousands of systems – about 10 percent of the computers then on the internet. Cleaning up the infection cost hundreds or thousands of dollars for each affected machine.

Read the full piece at The Conversation