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Look Back into the First Major Cyberattack: The Morris Worm
Thirty years ago, the Morris worm, dubbed as the first major cyberattack, was unleashed into the wild, crashing or slowing to a crawl 10% or 6,000 of the 60,000 computers then connected to the “Internet”.
What Is Morris Worm?
Morris worm is named after its creator Robert Tappan Morris. A worm, meanwhile, refers to a type of malicious software (malware) that has the ability to spread itself within networks without user interaction.
Courtdocuments showed that Morris, then a first-year graduate student at Cornell University's computer science Ph.D. program, released the worm on November 2, 1988 through a computer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), which Morris hacked using a Cornell University's computer.
Morris worm was released into the wild a year before the world wide web came into existence. The term “Internet” then referred to a U.S. computer network, composed of connected computers from prestigious colleges, research centers, governmental and military agencies.
In less than 24 hours on November 2, 1988, Morris worm infected the computers of institutions, including Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, Johns Hopkins, National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.
While the worm didn’t destroy or damage files, infected computers slowed to a crawl or ceased functioning and emails were delayed for days. The estimated cost of dealing with the Morris worm at each installation ranged from $200 to over $53,000.
The worm infected computers running a specific version of the Unix operating system in 4 ways:
First, via a security vulnerability in “SEND MAIL”, a computer program that transfers and receives electronic mail;
Second, via a security vulnerability in the "finger demon", a computer program that allows extraction of limited information about the users of another computer;
Third, via "trusted hosts" feature that allows a user with certain privileges on one computer to have equivalent privileges on another computer without using a password; and
Fourth, via a program that guesses passwords using various combinations of letters tried out in rapid succession, hoping that one will be an authorized user's password. When the correct password is entered, the intruder is allowed whatever level of activity that the user is authorized to perform.
Morris designed the worm to stay hidden. The worm was designed in such a way that it won’t copy itself onto a computer that already had a copy. The worm was also designed in such a way that it would be killed when a computer was shut down.
Consequences of the Morris Worm
For unleashing the worm into the wild, Morris became the first person convicted for violating the U.S. Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, which outlaws unauthorized access to protected computers. He was sentenced to 3 years of probation, 400 hours of community service, a fine of $10,050 and the costs of his supervision.
The first major cyberattack perpetrated by the Morris worm showed how vulnerable interconnected computers had become. Just days after the Morris worm attack, the U.S. Government created the country’s first computer emergency response team under the direction of the Department of Defense. Developers also began creating intrusion detection software.
On the flip side, the Morris worm inspired a new breed of malicious hackers, plaguing the digital age. In recent memory, the worm that resembles the devastation caused by Morris worm is the WannaCry worm, commonly known as WannaCry ransomware.
In less than 24 hours on May 12, 2017, more than 300,000 computers in 150 countries were infected by WannaCry, each demanding a ransom payment. WannaCry is categorized as a worm as similar to the Morris worm as it has the ability to spread itself within networks without user interaction.
WannaCry specifically exploited the security vulnerability in Server Message Block Protocol (SMB protocol) in some versions of Microsoft Windows. SMB protocol allows users to access files, printers and other resources on a network.
Here are some cybersecurity measures to protect your organization’s computers or networks from worms similar to WannaCry and Morris worms:
Implement Network Segmentation
In network segmentation, vital computers that housed critical information and operations are separated or disconnected from computers connected to vulnerable systems like the public internet. Network segmentation ensures that when internet-facing computers are infected by a worm, these vital computers aren’t affected.
Keep All Software Up-to-Date
Make sure that software security updates are installed as timely as possible, not months or years after the release dates of the security updates.
Cyberattackers have automated the process of scanning the internet for finding vulnerable computers – those that fail to install security updates. This was the case for WannaCry victims as they failed to install the security update issued by Microsoft months before the WannaCry cyberattack.
Refrain from Using Legacy Hardware and Software
The term “legacy” refers to old and outdated computer hardware or software. Similar to computers that fail to timely install security updates, legacy hardware and software programs are similarly targetted by cyberattackers as these legacy hardware and software programs no longer receive security update from their vendors.
Some versions of the Microsoft Windows (Windows XP, Windows 8, and Windows Server 2003 operating systems) were targeted by WannaCry attackers as well as during the attack these software programs were no longer supported by Microsoft. A day after the WannaCry attack, however, Microsoft released security updates for Windows XP, Windows 8, and Windows Server 2003.
Protecting computers or networks from worms and other malicious software is important in order to prevent data breaches. Under Canada’s Digital Privacy Act, starting November 1 this year, private organizations are mandated to notify the Privacy Commissioner of Canada and the affected individual “as soon as feasible” in the event that a data breach poses a “real risk of significant harm” to any individual.
When you need help assessing and mitigating the cybersecurity risks, contact out team of expertsand minimize the likelihood of a data breach.
Steve E. Driz, I.S.P., ITCP