Computer hobbyists break past code, cause havoc

Sami Pathan

The year was 1988. The Los Angeles Dodgers had just won the World Series, Ronald Reagan was about to exit the White House as president and a shy programmer named Robert Morris was set to unleash a digital plague that infected 10 percent of the Internet time while trying to realize its true size.
A first-year Ph.D. student at Cornell University at the time, Morris wrote the 99 lines of code which would eventually become the world’s first Internet worm. It was a self-replicating program that copied itself to multiple computers, normally doing no more harm than significantly slowing everything down.
A tiny mistake in the code caused the program to spread on the Internet from coast to coast, bogging down thousands of computers along the way.
“It affected around six or seven thousand computers in the country at the time,” wrote Morris in an email interview. “It was in 1988 so most of the computers that did have Internet access were government facilities, research centers, and universities. The Internet at the time was largely academic.”
Morris had intended for the worm to enter into computers by asking whether there was an existing copy of the program there, if so, it would move on to the next computer.
However, he was worried that system administrators would block the worm by programming their computers to falsely respond “yes.” To beat this potential defensive measure, Morris programmed the worm to duplicate itself every seventh time it received an affirmative response.
“That was just a gross underestimation on my part; I had never before done anything like that, and I didn’t know what a fitting ratio would be,” Morris said. “There wouldn’t have been nearly as much chaos if that mistake had been caught beforehand.”
The worm spread too fast because of the simple mistake. However, many so called “hackers” find a similar start to their careers, using accidental discoveries as the basis of their future interests.
“I did learn a lot from the experience. I was studying in computer science at the time, and even though the worm messed a lot up, it was a valuable experience,” Morris said, “certainly one not many people have had.”
Senior Cory Cullen started to tinker with computers as a way to prove to himself that he could, not as a way to cause trouble to anyone. He started out by forging report cards using a template he created himself while at West Junior High School.
Cullen then began installing Pivot Stick Figure, a physics animation game, on computers throughout the school and packaged it so, when uninstalled, the program would reinstall itself to a different location on the same computer.
“But I don’t do this sort of stuff just to inconvenience anyone or to make people feel bad or to slow down their day,” Cullen said. “I just like to have that skill set.”
For both Cullen and Morris, the start of their hacking had deeper motives. A curiosity behind what was possible led both to push the bounds of what was thought of as possible or acceptable. Morris originally created his worm to gauge the size of the Internet, not cause any damage.
“There were no ill intentions at all involved when I started out with it,” Morris said. “I wanted to know the size of the Internet, and an easy way of doing that was sort of marking each computer connected to it with one of these worms. Of course that went awry … It was never my intention to cause the amount of down time that was caused.”
However, not all hackers follow a similar path. Jonathan James, 16 years old at the time of his arrest in 2000, cracked into National Aeronautics and Space Administration computers, stealing software worth approximately $1.7 million.
According to the Department of Justice, the software supported the International Space Station’s physical environment, including control of the temperature and humidity within the living space. This forced NASA to shut down its computer systems, ultimately costing $41,000.
“There are definitely those who use the power of computers to steal information and commit crimes,” Morris said. “In the end it’s just the individual’s choice … there is no fine line separating what is acceptable and what isn’t and they realize that before they do what they do.”
Nonetheless, as an activity that society looks down upon, any level of hacking is liable to get one in trouble. Principals have called Cullen into their offices to revoke his computer privileges, Morris served three years’ probation and was fined $10,500 and James served six months in a federal prison.
“It definitely comes with the territory; people don’t want you to go through anything that’s theirs and that’s really what hacking is about,” Cullen said. “I don’t really do anything that bad, but you have to accept the risks that come along with it.”
By Sami Pathan