On July 26, 1989, Cornell grad student Robert Tappan Morris became the first person indicted under the U.S. Computer Fraud and Abuse Act of 1986—effectively becoming America's first high-profile cybercriminal. The government eventually convicted Morris for writing and releasing the eponymous Morris Worm, a now-notorious bit of malicious code that introduced the mainstream media to the notion of wide-scale distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attack.
Released into the wild on Nov. 2, 1988, the Morris Worm spread across the Internet to several thousand DEC VAX and Sun machines running BSD UNIX via a series of exploits in common software, most notably sendmail. (Microsoft Exchange didn't exist yet.)
Morris himself claimed that he wrote the worm without malicious intent and designed it merely to propagate in an effort to gauge the size of the Internet as it existed in 1988 (AKA, the Dark Ages). As such, the worm asked a potential target system if a copy of the worm was already present on the machine. If the answer was yes, the worm would not install itself, thereby self-governing its own spread.
However, even 1988 firewalls could fend off these kinds of programs and would tell the Morris Worm that a copy of the program was already present—regardless of whether this statement was true. As such, Morris wrote the worm to install itself 14 percent of the time, no matter what result the preinstall query returned. This counter-firewall aspect of the worm was entirely too aggressive, and the worm relentlessly replicated itself to the point of demonstrably crippling the Net and the systems it infected.
The effects of the Morris Worm were so widespread and pronounced that it made the national news (quite a feat in 1988), and it eventually earned Morris a landmark if decidedly unintimidating conviction: Three years' probation, 400 hours of community service, and a $10,050 fine. In geek circles, people sometimes referred to the Morris Worm as the Great Worm, a reference to the Great Worms (i.e., dragons) found in J. R. R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings series.
This, of course, was not why we called Morris' creation a worm, as these types of malicious programs (distinct from computer viruses) owe their etymology to a work of science fiction, rather than fantasy.
WHAT WORK OF SCIENCE FICTION COINED THE TERM COMPUTER WORM?
What work of science fiction coined the term computer worm as a distinct type of malicious program, separate from the more commonly known computer virus?
Most people recognize The Shockwave Rider, a 1975 science-fiction novel by the late British author John Brunner, for its description of self-replicating software as worms.
Brunner won the 1969 Hugo Award for his novel Stand on Zanzibar, which may be why his work was familiar to John F. Shoch and John A. Hupp, a pair of researchers at the legendary Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC). Shoch and Hupp noted Brunner's fictional worms in their 1982 academic paper, "The Worm Programs," a seminal work that in many ways defined a computer worm and the dangers such software can pose.
They would know, too, because Shoch and Hupp wrote the first documented real-world worm programs while at the PARC. Actually designed to be beneficial, these early worms identified idle CPU cycles on the PARC network and assigned them queued tasks, thereby improving overall system efficiency. We've come a long way since then.
(Contrary to media hype, the Morris Worm was not the first worm ever, nor was it the first worm to escape the confines of the lab and propagate in the wild. It was merely the first major worm to garner public attention.)
For the record, Webster's defines a worm as "a usually small, self-contained, and self-replicating computer program that invades computers on a network and usually performs a destructive action." Similarly, Webster's defines a virus as "a computer program that is usually hidden within another seemingly innocuous program and that produces copies of itself and inserts them into other programs and usually performs a malicious action (as destroying data)."
Short version: Worms are self-contained entities (like biological worms), while viruses travel via other software (like biological viruses). The rest is just details—or more properly, Geek Trivia.
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The Quibble of the Week
If you uncover a questionable fact or debatable aspect of this week's Geek Trivia, just post it in the discussion area of the article. Every week, yours truly will choose the best post from the assembled masses and discuss it in the next edition of Geek Trivia.
This week's quibble comes from the July 5 edition of Geek Trivia, "First to the Fourth." TechRepublic member Rob_cranfill argued that I had my archaeological jargon out of whack (and me with a degree in anthropology/sociology, no less).
"I'm. . . no ethnologist or anthropologist, but I don't think the phrase 'the Anasazi tribe' is correct. The term usually used is 'Anasazi peoples'. I'm not sure just what the technical distinction is, but as I understand it, 'the Anasazi' are a pretty mysterious bunch—just a term for whoever the heck it was who lived in that area and left those artifacts. To call them a 'tribe' attributes more structure and detail to their society/societies than we know."
Well, Rob, I looked into it (via Wikipedia, naturally), and any use of the term Anasazi is pretty touchy these days, as the more acceptable descriptor is ancient pueblo peoples. Essentially, these are prehistoric people from the American Southwest that appeared around 1200 B.C. and developed markedly similar technology (e.g., pottery, weapons, and architecture).
The various Anasazi peoples probably didn't speak the same languages, let alone operate as a coherent tribal unit. The term Anasazi is about as specific as Arizonan, and I shouldn't have used it interchangeably with tribe. Nice catch, and keep those quibble coming.
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The Trivia Geek, also known as Jay Garmon, is a former advertising copywriter and Web developer who's duped TechRepublic into underwriting his affinity for movies, sci-fi, comic books, technology, and all things geekish or subcultural.