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On This Day: Robert Tappan Morris Becomes First Hacker Prosecuted for Spreading Virus

Last updated: February 12, 2023

On July 26, 1989, Cornell graduate student Robert Tappan Morris was indicted for spreading the Internet’s first worm virus, infecting more than 6,000 universities, research centers,s and military computers.

The Morris Worm Cripples Internet

Robert Tappan Morris was a Harvard graduate and Cornell graduate student when he developed the first widely spread Internet “worm.” He released it on Nov. 2, 1988, using MIT’s systems to disguise the fact that he was a Cornell student.

The worm was intended to be harmless, but Morris made a mistake in writing it. He hoped that only one copy of the worm would infect each computer, but in an attempt to circumvent computers that would say it already had a copy, he “programmed the worm to duplicate itself every seventh time it received a ‘yes’ response,” explains eWeek.

The Morris worm began replicating itself at a far faster rate than he intended, flooding hard drives and causing extensive damage. A friend of Morris tried to send out a warning to other users, but many systems had already shut down.

In just a few days, the Morris worm traveled across Arpanet, the precursor to today’s Internet, and infected more than 6,000 computers at universities, research centers and military installations.

The cost in removing the worm from each computer ranged from $200 to more than $53,000. According to estimates by the U.S. General Accounting Office, between $100,000 and $10 million was lost due to lack of access to the Internet.

Morris was soon identified as the source of the worm, and authorities sought to indict him under the 1986 Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, which outlawed gaining unauthorized access to federal computers.

It took prosecutors eight months to hand down an indictment because there was “an internal debate over whether it might be impossible to prove the charges,” reported The New York Times. Prosecutors had to prove that “Morris intended to cripple the computer network.”

Morris was found guilty in 1990. He was given a light sentence: a $10,050 fine, 400 hours of community service, and a three-year probation.

Background: The Morris Worm

A worm is a self-replicating virus that hides itself on computer hard drives and spreads to other computers on its network. HowStuff Works provides a simple explanation of worms and computer viruses.

A short explanation of how the Morris Worm functioned is provided by Charles Schmidt and Tom Darby, authors of “The What, Why, and How of the 1988 Internet Worm.” A detailed analysis of the Morris Worm is provided in a report by Purdue computer sciences professor Eugene Spafford that was originally released Nov. 29, 1988.

The Response to the Morris Worm

Sources in this Story

  • eWeek: Who Let The Worms Out?
  • Tom Darby’s Homepage: The What, Why, and How of the 1988 Internet Worm
  • The New York Times: Student, After Delay, Is Charged In Crippling of Computer Network
  • Dr. Ronald B. Standler: U.S. v. Robert Tappan Morris
  • HowStuffWorks: How Computer Viruses Work
  • Purdue University: The Internet Worm Program: An Analysis
  • The New York Times: Living With the Computer Whiz Kids
  • Network World: Morris worm turns 20: Look what it’s done

Public opinion on Morris was split. While many people saw him as a criminal who had maliciously damaged property, accessed confidential information, and created national panic among computer users, others thought he did computer users a favor by exposing security flaws.

“The biggest implication of the Morris worm was that the Internet was very small … and it was considered a friendly place, a clubhouse,” said programmer Eric Allman to Network World in 2008. “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.”

In the two decades since the release of the Morris worm, computer security has developed into an industry of its own. “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,” wrote Carolyn Duffy Marsan for Network World.

Key Player: Robert Tappan Morris

Morris currently teaches computer science at MIT. His personal Web site features some of his programming work and his research papers.

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