Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Faustian kids threaten US security. COMPUTERS

A WEB of electronic intrigue that enfeebled one of the largest computer networks in the US, Internet, is slowly being untangled, and lessons are being drawn. Some see the infiltration, the work of a Cornell University graduate student, Robert Morris Jr., primarily as a warning that tighter security measures are needed in many of the nation's computer networks. But others stress the need for greater attention to ethics in the computer world, where technical prowess can give programmers a Faustian sense of personal power.

``It is a moral issue, not a security issue,'' says Eugene Spaf-ford, a computer science professor at Purdue University. He finds little consolation in reports that Mr. Morris did not mean his program to cause such trouble.

About these ads

Morris wrote a code that wormed its way into the Internet system Nov. 2. He used knowledge of the system gained in part from a summer job at AT&T Bell Laboratories. But due to an error, his program made dozens of copies of itself in each computer it spread to, rather than just one copy as he had intended.

Morris' program is thought to have affected one-tenth of the 60,000 computers in Internet, which links government, corporate and university sites in the US and overseas. An estimated $2 million was lost while the systems were jammed. No classified data was destroyed, however.

The US Federal Bureau of Investigation is investigating whether any federal laws were infringed. The 1986 Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, the strongest federal law on computer crime, makes it illegal to knowingly gain access to a government computer without authorization and to hinder its normal operation.

Various state laws might also be brought to bear in the case. New York State, where Morris worked on the program and where several Internet sites were hit, is one of about 44 states that have some sort of civil or criminal laws on computer crime. ``Both civil and criminal lawsuits should be filed,'' says Professor Spafford. He believes this is the only way to send a clear message that such behavior is not acceptable.

In addition, ``We need to do a better job teaching ethics'' in technological fields, he says.

Andrew Sudduth, systems manager at Harvard University's Aiken Laboratory, where Morris worked as an undergraduate, says Morris is ``basically a responsible, understanding, mature kid'' who got wrapped up in the intellectual challenge of writing a program that could hide itself surreptitiously throughout the Internet system.