Robert Tappan Morris is known as the creator of the Morris Worm, the first computer worm to be unleashed on the Internet.
The worm was intended to be harmless, but Morris made a mistake in writing it. He hoped that only one copy of the worm would infect each computer, but in an attempt to circumvent computers that would say it already had a copy, he “programmed the worm to duplicate itself every seventh time it received a ‘yes’ response,” explains eWeek.
The Morris worm began replicating itself at a far faster rate than he intended, flooding hard drives and causing extensive damage. A friend of Morris tried to send out a warning to other users, but many systems had already shut down.
In just a few days, the Morris worm traveled across Arpanet, the precursor to today’s Internet, and infected more than 6,000 computers at universities, research centers and military installations.
The cost in removing the worm from each computer ranged from $200 to more than $53,000. According to estimates by the U.S. General Accounting Office, between $100,000 and $10 million was lost due to lack of access to the Internet.
Morris was soon identified as the source of the worm, and authorities sought to indict him under the 1986 Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, which outlawed gaining unauthorized access to federal computers.
It took prosecutors eight months to hand down an indictment because there was “an internal debate over whether it might be impossible to prove the charges,” reported The New York Times. Prosecutors had to prove that “Morris intended to cripple the computer network.”
Morris was found guilty in 1990. He was given a light sentence: a $10,050 fine, 400 hours of community service, and a three-year probation.