If someone were to release a worm today equivalent to the one Robert Tappan Morris Jr unleashed on the Internet on November 2, 1988, it could potentially bring about a global social and financial crisis.
The Morris worm crashed between 10 and 20 per cent of the 60,000 to 80,000 computers hooked up to the Internet. Today, an attack that disabled just 10 per cent of the hosts on the Internet would afflict more than 5 million machines, notes Mark Zajicek, an operations support liaison at the Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT) Coordination Center in Pittsburgh.
Even more devastating would be a worm that attacked routers, as opposed to hosts and computers, says Ira Winkler, a security expert and president of the Internet Security Advisors Group. Each router that crashed could take 100,000 users down with it. A worm that affected those could take down the whole Internet,' Winkler adds.
Moreover, whereas the Morris worm interrupted communication among a relatively small group of university computer users, researchers and scientists, a denial of service of the same scale today would bring business to a standstill and disrupt the professional and personal lives of countless numbers of people. And though the 1988 outage lasted two days, a serious outage today could take much longer to repair, security experts say.
You didn't have corporations relying on the Net for day-to-day business operations then the way you do now,' Zajicek says.
But a major difference in the Internet today compared with the Internet in 1988 that could offer a layer of protection is the diversity of hosts, operating systems and applications, which helps minimise the rapid spread of a worm, Zajicek adds.
The worm took advantage of sev-eral bugs Morris had found in source code, including unpatched holes in the sendmail and finger programs. It replicated itself at a rate much faster than even Morris himself reportedly anticipated, according to an account in Cyberpunk: Outlaws and Hackers on the Computer Frontier, by John Markoff and Katie Hafner.
Markoff, a reporter for The New York Times, played a key role in uncovering Morris' identity. When the worm began crashing computers across the country, Morris got scared. The next day he called The Times and eventually started a dialogue with Markoff, using only the name Paul. In one conversation, however, he accidentally referred to himself by his Internet log-on name rtm. Using this inadvertent clue, Markoff, with the help of a colleague, discovered Morris' name, according to Cyberpunk.