That time when an NSA bloke's son borked the ENTIRE INTERNET...

... 25 years ago. 2 words that still stop old sysadmins' hearts: Morris Worm


It's 25 years since the Morris Worm taught the world that computers were capable of contracting viruses.

The Morris Worm hit on 2 November 1988, spreading rapidly by exploiting vulnerabilities in sendmail, the email server software that was the most commonly used technology of its type at the time.

Many contemporary Unix servers were running versions of sendmail featuring buggy debugging code, a shortcoming the worm exploited to devastating effect. The worm also bundled other spreading tricks, including the the ability to guess passwords and a stack overflow vulnerability in Unix systems.

The worm only exploited known vulnerabilities in Unix sendmail, finger, and rsh/rexec, as well as weak passwords. It was meant only to gauge the size of the nascent internet, but mistakes in its spreading mechanisms had unintended consequences that turned it into a powerful server-crashing tool.

Computer systems were flooded with malicious traffic as the worm tried to spread itself further, with many systems either crashing or grinding to a halt. According to estimates, 6,000 of the 60,000 systems in the early (and much smaller) internet of the day got infected by the worm.

Although the worm had no malicious payload its promiscuous spread created chaos.

A PBS television news report about the worm, which created all manner of headaches for early sysadmins, set the scene for many reports to follow. The suspect was a "dark genius", it concluded.

"Life in the modern world has a new anxiety," said the news anchor. "Just as we've become totally dependent on our computers they're being stalked by saboteurs, saboteurs who create computer viruses."

Youtube Video

The creator of the worm was eventually identified as Robert T Morris, a computer science graduate student in the first year of his doctorate at Cornell University.

Morris was prosecuted over his actions, found guilty of breaking US computer abuse laws (specifically, the recently passed Computer Fraud and Abuse Act), and sentenced to three years’ probation. He was also ordered to complete 400 hours of community service and fined just over $10,000.

"What Morris did was stupid and reckless – there is no doubt about that. But he wasn’t the first person to write a virus, and he was far from the last to create and spread destructive malware," notes veteran security researcher Graham Cluley in a blog post marking the Morris Worm anniversary.

Morris, now a professor at the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at MIT, declined The Register's invitation to answer questions on the creation of the worm. Morris's late father, also named Robert, worked for the NSA.

"A lot of this story sounds eerily familiar, even 25 years later," notes anti-virus industry veteran Paul Ducklin in a post on the Sophos Naked Security blog. Ducklin's post reflecting on the Morris Worm event, and the lessons that can be learned from the incident - many of which continue to be relevant today - can be found here.

Bugnote

Shortly after the outbreak, security researcher Eugene Spafford wrote what remains the definitive analysis (PDF) of the bugs exploited by the Morris Worm.

Similar topics

Broader topics


Other stories you might like

  • HelloXD ransomware bulked up with better encryption, nastier payload
    Russian-based group doubles the extortion by exfiltrating the corporate data before encrypting it.

    Windows and Linux systems are coming under attack by new variants of the HelloXD ransomware that includes stronger encryption, improved obfuscation and an additional payload that enables threat groups to modify compromised systems, exfiltrate files and execute commands.

    The new capabilities make the ransomware, first detected in November 2021 - and the developer behind it even more dangerous - according to researchers with Palo Alto Networks' Unit 42 threat intelligence group. Unit 42 said the HelloXD ransomware family is in its initial stages but it's working to track down the author.

    "While the ransomware functionality is nothing new, during our research, following the lines, we found out the ransomware is most likely developed by a threat actor named x4k," the researchers wrote in a blog post.

    Continue reading
  • Symbiote Linux malware spotted – and infections are 'very hard to detect'
    Performing live forensics on hijacked machine may not turn anything up, warn researchers

    Intezer security researcher Joakim Kennedy and the BlackBerry Threat Research and Intelligence Team have analyzed an unusual piece of Linux malware they say is unlike most seen before - it isn't a standalone executable file.

    Dubbed Symbiote, the badware instead hijacks the environment variable (LD_PRELOAD) the dynamic linker uses to load a shared object library and soon infects every single running process.

    The Intezer/BlackBerry team discovered Symbiote in November 2021, and said it appeared to have been written to target financial institutions in Latin America. Analysis of the Symbiote malware and its behavior suggest it may have been developed in Brazil. 

    Continue reading
  • Now Windows Follina zero-day exploited to infect PCs with Qbot
    Data-stealing malware also paired with Black Basta ransomware gang

    Miscreants are reportedly exploiting the recently disclosed critical Windows Follina zero-day flaw to infect PCs with Qbot, thus aggressively expanding their reach.

    The bot's operators are also working with the Black Basta gang to spread ransomware in yet another partnership in the underground world of cyber-crime, it is claimed.

    This combination of Follina exploitation and its use to extort organizations makes the malware an even larger threat for enterprises. Qbot started off as a software nasty that raided people's online bank accounts, and evolved to snoop on user keystrokes and steal sensitive information from machines. It can also deliver other malware payloads, such as backdoors and ransomware, onto infected Windows systems, and forms a remote-controllable botnet.

    Continue reading
  • Chinese-sponsored gang Gallium upgrades to sneaky PingPull RAT
    Broadens targets from telecoms to finance and government orgs

    The Gallium group, believed to be a Chinese state-sponsored team, is going on the warpath with an upgraded remote access trojan (RAT) that threat hunters say is difficult to detect.

    The deployment of this "PingPull" RAT comes as the gang is broadening the types of organizations in its sights from telecommunications companies to financial services firms and government entities across Asia, Southeast Asia, Europe and Africa, according to researchers with Palo Alto Networks' Unit 42 threat intelligence group.

    The backdoor, once in a compromised system, comes in three variants, each of which can communicate with the command-and-control (C2) system in one of three protocols: ICMP, HTTPS and raw TCP. All three PingPull variants have the same functionality, but each creates a custom string of code that it sends to the C2 server, which will use the unique string to identify the compromised system.

    Continue reading

Biting the hand that feeds IT © 1998–2022