This is the untold story behind how and why the world’s first cyberattack was carried out. 

Have you ever been hacked? If you have, sorry; but if not, then chances are that you’re now in a more safer cyber universe than it was a couple of decades ago. You doubt that the world now has hackers and scammers who are more skilled to access your information without you ever knowing. Truth is, yes. However, you’re now secure than ever before. Dear friends, ever heard of the ‘Morris’ Worm’? We doubt you do. This was the world’s first cyberattack on the internet that led to how our computers are all now encrypted.


Related media: Most Dangerous Computer Viruses In The World


Once Upon A Worm

In 1988, a 23-year-old Cornell University freshman launched a computer program via the Internet that most people called the first cyberattack on computer systems. The malicious program was later dubbed “Morris’ Worm,” and it made computer engineers took the idea of cybersecurity more seriously. Before we talk about that, lets take a crash course about worms and how it affects modern programming today.

Your computer has an operating system (OS), and its what helps your computer to run and execute programs. You might not understand how it functions entirely, but it does a lot of stuff hidden under the hood of your computer. A worm, on the other hand, is a computer program (a sort of code) that has the ability to manipulate the OSs’ performance by releasing a new set of instructions for it to operate with. Simply put it, it hacks your system to control it.

Hackers used worms to deliver all sort of malware, including ones that could encrypt all files on a server if launched. Worms were transmitted via floppy disks and other primitive storage devices. Slot a disk in and the worm would begin running without you noticing it until your computer started acting up. Nowadays, worms are sent via emails and flash drives. You’ll receive an unknown email, which asks you to click a link, and there you’re hacked — copying vital files and sending it out as emails with the worm attached; or plug a flash drive into your computer, and the damage starts, too.

If infected, your computer jams up, works overtime, and sends out more copies of the worm automatically. This might even damage your OS altogether. Worms are infamous today, but Wikipedia has a list of over 40 kinds of ‘em. Yes, there are a few more that might not be known yet.



Whence Cometh Thine Worm?

Now, lets talk about Morris’ Worm. The worm was to hackers just as Galileo’s telescope was to astronomers. Think of it as the grandfather of all worms. Robert Morris Jr. was the talented computer scientists who created it. He was an enthusiastic programmer who spent most of his time trying out new quirky ideas, and it seems the idea of hacking the internet came to mind. But it wasn’t big back then, the world had only fewer than 100,000 connected computers online (if you think that’s too much, Google that of today).

Getting connected was pretty easy, (not technically, but you know what we mean). Most users didn’t even have passwords, and people online seemed to trust one another back then. What a loophole! Before Morris enrolled in Cornell, he was known as the “prankster” at Harvard University, where he developed a program that could spread slowly and secretly across the Internet (which was then called ARPANET). He later launched it by hacking a Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) computer from Cornell dorm room in Ithaca, New York.

Image: The Computer History Museum | The Morris’ Internet Worm Source Code

He didn’t plan it deliberately; he was just testing his program. That’s all. The internet often get rampant safety issues, and he intended pinpointing them out. Spoiler alert: he made a big mistake. The biggest mistake in the history of programming — he hacked the internet for the first time. Initially, his worm meant to survey a few things like:

  1. The worm asks each computer if it already has a copy of the code.
  2. If the computer wasn’t infected, Respond “No,” the code would execute.
  3. If the computer was infected, Respond “Yes,” the worm wouldn’t copy.

Simple algorithm, huh? Spoiler again: it did the opposite. The worm copied itself with each computer it encountered, and his code seemed simple — like he didn’t intend for smart programmers like himself to crack it easily had their computers responded “Yes.” But after several responses, the code copied itself, and did the inevitable damage: duplicates of the code had many computers running it spontaneously. Infected computers had poor performance and came to a grinding halt. Some systems even crash altogether.



Morris’ Infested Worm

Image: Shutterstock / iStock / Getty Images Plus

The worm’s rapid invasion in an era when nobody had any protected software installed, took researchers at Berkeley and Purdue almost 72 hours to halt the attack. According to Morris, the purpose of his worm was to gauge the size of the ARPANET, having unintentionally caused a denial-of-service (DoS) for roughly ten percent of the 60,000 computers that were online at the time of the incident. This became the first cyberattack in history.

After this incident, an investigation was launched by the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI), and agents immediately confirmed Morris as the culprit. He was interviewed together with his associates and had authorities decrypt his computers files for evidence, and they had enough to apprehend him. So, was he guilty of a federal crime? Yes, he was. In 1986, just two years ago, the US Congress passed the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, which outlawed unauthorized access to protected computers.

Morris was tried and convicted of violating US Code: Title 18 (18 U.S.C § 1080) in the landmark case United States v. Morris. He became the first person in history to be convicted under this law, and was spared jail; however, he was sentenced to a three-year probation, 400 hours of community service, and $10,050 ($22,172 adjusted for inflation) fine plus his supervision.

This attack made the entire world understand cybersecurity more than ever. Most tech companies now invest in things like password management securities and firewalls to ensure some level of trust and serenity of people using the web. Whether Morris’ worm was accidental or not, it has made the use of the internet a lot more protected, after all.


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Written by: Nana Kwadwo, Mon, Feb 01, 2021.

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