Morris worm turns 20: Look what it's done

First Internet attack spawned panic, public awareness and security research

The Internet will mark an infamous anniversary on Sunday, when the Morris worm turns 20.

Considered the first major attack on the 'Net, the Morris worm served as a wake-up call to the Internet engineering community about the risk of software bugs, and it set the stage for network security to become a valid area of research and development. (Watch a slideshow of the 10 worst moments in network security history.)

"It was a really big deal," says Eric Allman, a computer programmer who in 1981 authored sendmail, open source Internet e-mail software, while he was a student at the University of California. Today, Allman serves as chief science officer at Sendmail, a company that sells commercial-grade versions of the software.

"The biggest implication of the Morris worm was that the Internet was very small ... and it was considered a friendly place, a clubhouse," Allman says. "This [attack] made it clear that there were some people in that clubhouse who didn't have the best interests of the world in mind ... This made it clear we had to think about security."

Despite the high-profile nature of the worm, some experts say its importance was not fully appreciated at the time.

"The really interesting lesson of the Morris Worm is how little long-term impact it had," says Steve Bellovin, a professor in the Department of Computer Science at Columbia University who was developing an early firewall at Bell Labs when the attack occurred. "It showed people who cared how dangerous buggy software could be, but nobody else really paid that much attention to network security afterwards. It wasn't until the mid-1990s that it became an issue again."

The Morris worm was written by Cornell University student Robert Tappan Morris, who was later convicted of computer fraud for the incident. Today, Morris is a respected associate professor of computer science at MIT.

Launched around on November 2, 1988, the Morris worm disabled approximately 10 percent of all Internet-connected systems, which were estimated at more than 60,000 machines.

The Morris worm was a self-replicating program that exploited known weaknesses in common utilities including sendmail, which is e-mail routing software, and Finger, a tool that showed which users were logged on to the network.

The Morris worm was able to break into Sun 3 systems and Digital VAX computers running BSD Unix. The fast-spreading worm kept copying itself and infecting computers multiple times, causing many systems to fail.

Join the newsletter!

Or

Sign up to gain exclusive access to email subscriptions, event invitations, competitions, giveaways, and much more.

Membership is free, and your security and privacy remain protected. View our privacy policy before signing up.

Error: Please check your email address.

Tags morris worm

Keep up with the latest tech news, reviews and previews by subscribing to the Good Gear Guide newsletter.

Carolyn Duffy Marsan

Network World
Show Comments

Brand Post

Most Popular Reviews

Latest Articles

Resources

PCW Evaluation Team

Tom Pope

Dynabook Portégé X30L-G

Ultimately this laptop has achieved everything I would hope for in a laptop for work, while fitting that into a form factor and weight that is remarkable.

Tom Sellers

MSI P65

This smart laptop was enjoyable to use and great to work on – creating content was super simple.

Lolita Wang

MSI GT76

It really doesn’t get more “gaming laptop” than this.

Jack Jeffries

MSI GS75

As the Maserati or BMW of laptops, it would fit perfectly in the hands of a professional needing firepower under the hood, sophistication and class on the surface, and gaming prowess (sports mode if you will) in between.

Taylor Carr

MSI PS63

The MSI PS63 is an amazing laptop and I would definitely consider buying one in the future.

Christopher Low

Brother RJ-4230B

This small mobile printer is exactly what I need for invoicing and other jobs such as sending fellow tradesman details or step-by-step instructions that I can easily print off from my phone or the Web.

Featured Content

Product Launch Showcase

Don’t have an account? Sign up here

Don't have an account? Sign up now

Forgot password?