Eye-opening ‘Morris worm’ turns 25 tomorrow

Here’s how a Boston PBS station covered the story at the time

On Nov. 2, 1988, mainstream America learned for the first time that computers get viruses, too, as what would become known as the Morris worm - named for its author, Cornell University student Robert Tappan Morris - made front-page headlines after first making life miserable for IT professionals.

(2013's 25 Geekiest 25th Anniversaries)

TV news coverage from the time, plucked off YouTube, offers a telling look at how computer viruses were perceived (or not) at the time. Here's a clip from a rather melodramatic newscast by the Boston PBS affiliate, followed by a transcript for those who prefer to read:

Anchor Carmen Fields: "Life in the modern world has a new anxiety today. Just as we've become totally dependent on our computers they're being stalked by saboteurs, saboteurs who create computer viruses. The Defense Department, universities and research centers are still recovering from a computer virus that brought a nationwide network to a standstill. One of the institutions hardest hit was MIT. David Boeri reports."

morris

Boeri: "It came from California, maybe traveled by electronic mail. It spread across America."

Boeri to MIT student Mark Eichin: "How insidious was this virus?"

Eichin: "Well, it spread very quickly."

MIT Prof. James D. Bruce: "There are reports in newspapers today that it has made its way to Europe and Australia."

Boeri: "It arrived at MIT in the middle of the night. The students were safe, but their computers weren't."

Jeffrey Schiller, network information systems, MIT: "Just ran. It would enter your machine, it would do its thing, it would go to other machines."

Boeri: "At MIT 200 computers were infected. Across the country the toll might be 6,000. It could have been worse."

Eichen: "We believe it was intended to spread more slowly than it did so that it wouldn't be noticed as quickly, which would have actually been more insidious if it spread out to a large number of machines and, say, held a surprise and did something. Once we had it stopped we were able to take it apart, sort of dissect it and tear it apart piece by piece."

worm

Boeri: "It's not really a virus, it's a code, a set of instructions, an act of sabotage that started on a floppy disk. This virus spread by disk and by telephone. Like a virus it replicated like crazy. And as it replicates, the code, the so-called virus, eats up large amounts of memory. It wipes out stored data or cripples the hardware. This virus clogged a system linking thousands of computers but apparently did no damage."

Schiller: "It's benign, it's not malicious, it attempts to do no damage besides propagate itself, and that's why I think it's a warning."

Prof. Bruce: "I suspect it's a student, a good A student."

Boeri: "So lost computer time, but no files destroyed, just a thrill for the virus hunters, and a warning."

Schiller: "My personal speculation is that this is somebody who is trying to warn people, to say, 'It can happen to you.' "

In a sense it did serve as such a warning, though that was not what Morris intended (he says he wanted to measure the size of the Internet).

It also resulted in Morris being the first person convicted under the 1986 Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, though he served no jail time.

(Update: The Washington Post has an extensive Morris story today.) 

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