Robert Tappan Morris

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Robert Tappan Morris bigraphy, stories - American computer scientist; creator of Morris Worm; associate professor at MIT

Robert Tappan Morris : biography

November 8, 1965 –

Robert Tappan Morris (born November 8, 1965) is an American computer scientist, best known for creating the Morris Worm in 1988, considered the first computer worm on the Internet—and subsequently becoming the first person convicted under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.

He went on to co-found the online store Viaweb, one of the first web-based applications, and later the funding firm Y Combinator—both with Paul Graham. He is a tenured professor in the department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

His father was the late Robert Morris, a coauthor of UNIX and the former chief scientist at the National Computer Security Center, a division of the National Security Agency (NSA).

Research

His principal research interest is computer network architectures which includes work on distributed hash tables such as Chord and wireless mesh networks such as Roofnet.

Personal

Morris is a longtime friend of Paul Graham. Graham dedicated his book ANSI Common Lisp to him, and named the programming language that generates the online stores’ web pages RTML in his honor. Graham also lists Morris as one of his personal heroes, saying "he’s never wrong."

Conviction

Robert Morris was convicted of violating United States Code: Title 18 (), the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. and in December, 1990, was sentenced to three years of probation, 400 hours of community service, a fine of $10,050, and the costs of his supervision. His appeal was rejected the following March.

The worm

Morris created the worm while he was a graduate student at Cornell University. The original intent, according to him, was to gauge the size of the Internet. He released the worm from MIT to conceal the fact that it actually originated from Cornell. The worm exploited several vulnerabilities to gain entry to targeted systems, including:

  • a hole in the debug mode of the Unix sendmail program,
  • a buffer overrun hole in the fingerd network service,
  • the transitive trust enabled by people setting up rexec/rsh network logins without password requirements.

However, the worm had a design flaw. The worm was programmed to check each computer it found to determine if the infection was already present. However, Morris believed that some administrators might try to defeat his worm by instructing the computer to report a false positive. To compensate for this possibility, Morris directed the worm to copy itself anyway, 14% of the time, no matter what the response to the infection-status interrogation. This level of replication created system loads that not only brought it to the attention of system administrators, but also disrupted the target computers. It was estimated that the cost in "potential loss in productivity" caused by the worm and efforts to remove it ranged on each system from $200 to more than $53,000.

Timeline

  • 1983 – Graduated from Delbarton School in Morristown, New JerseyDaly, James. , Computerworld, November 14, 1988. Accessed February 15, 2011. "Draves added that Morris said he enjoyed cracking passwords as a student at the Delbarton School, an exclusive private high school in Morristown, NJ ‘But I thought he’d given up on that,’ Draves said."
  • 1987 – Received his BA from Harvard University.
  • 1988 – Released the Morris worm (when he was a graduate student at Cornell University)
  • 1989 – Indicted under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act of 1986 on July 26, 1989 — the first person to be indicted under this Act
  • 1990 – Convicted in United States v. Morris
  • 1995 – Cofounded Viaweb, a start-up company that made software for building online stores (with Paul Graham)
  • 1998 – Viaweb sold for $48 million to Yahoo, who renamed the software "Yahoo! Store"
  • 1999 – Received Ph.D. in Applied Sciences from Harvard
  • 1999 – Appointed as a professor at MIT
  • 2005 – Co-founded Y Combinator, a seed-stage startup funding firm, that provides seed money, advice, and connections at two 3-month programs per year (with Paul Graham, Trevor Blackwell, and Jessica Livingston)
  • 2006 – Awarded tenure
  • 2006 – Technical advisor for Meraki Networks
  • 2008 – Released the Arc programming language, a Lisp dialect (with Paul Graham).
  • 2010 – Awarded the 2010 SIGOPS Mark Weiser award.