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When a student released a worm on the Internet

When a student released a worm on the Internet

In the fantasy world created by Lord of the Rings author JRR Tolkien, there are many terrifying monsters. But one of the most powerful of these beings is undoubtedly the Great Worm: Glorung, the ancestor of dragons, is a massive monster that can reduce entire landscapes to rubble.

In the age of digitalization, a few lines of malicious code are enough to wreak havoc on our computer infrastructure. Among hackers, the dragon’s ancestors became the namesake of a less obvious horror creature: the “Great Worm,” which paralyzed the entire Internet on November 2, 1988, 35 years ago.

On that day, many computers in the United States suddenly went on strike. Tasks that used to take very little computer time suddenly take forever. Reason: A program that spread from computer to computer without the users’ knowledge and consumed their computing power.

A floppy disk containing Morris’s source code is on display at the Computer History Museum.

© Wikimedia Commons / Science Museum

This “worm” – the name given to software that spreads independently and without user intervention – was the product of a failed experiment. A young computer science student named Robert Morris released it online. Morris was actually curious to see if his show would actually catch on.

To do this, the worm exploited, among other things, a vulnerability in an email program: a backdoor that the developers left open to search for bugs if necessary. Through this backdoor, the worm infiltrated all computers in the user’s address book.

Unfortunately, Morris made a mistake. Once a worm reaches a computer, it always reproduces there with a certain probability – regardless of whether the machine is already infected or not. As a result, many computers were repeatedly infected with new copies of the worm until the computer crashed due to overload.

The consequences of the first Internet worm were devastating. Thousands of computers became temporarily unusable, with repair costs amounting to hundreds of thousands of dollars. Robert Morris himself got off lightly: He was sentenced to probation, had to complete community service hours and pay a fine of about $10,000. Today, Morris is a professor of computer science at the top university Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge.

Read all previously published episodes of the Tagesrückspiegel column here.