Times Insider

1988: ‘The Internet’ Comes Down With a Virus

This feature looks at the first time famous names or terms appeared in The Times. Have an idea for someone or something you would like to read about? Send a suggestion in the comments section.

It makes perfect sense when you think about it — the first mention of “the Internet” in The Times came in an article about a computer virus. Without a network, there would have been no way for a virus to go viral.


In 1988, Robert T. Morris, a 23-year-old graduate student at Cornell, created a virus that inadvertently resulted in the “jamming of more than 6,000 computers nationwide in this country’s most serious computer ‘virus’ attack,” The Times reported on Nov. 5, 1988. Those computers, the article by John Markoff pointed out, were part of “an international group of computer communications networks, the Internet.”

The internet is mentioned in the second paragraph in the second column.Credit

What made the story all the more interesting was that Mr. Morris’s father was the chief scientist for a computer security arm of the National Security Agency. Among other things, the virus, or worm, went after password files — and Morris’s father created the computer password.

See the full article.Credit

The N.S.A. wanted to clamp a lid on as much of the affair as it could. Within days, the agency’s National Computer Security Center, where the elder Morris worked, asked Purdue University to remove from its computers information about the internal workings of the virus.

After being sentenced to three years’ probation, the younger Morris went on to a distinguished career in computer science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he is now a tenured professor.

Mr. Markoff, who with Katie Hafner detailed the case in a 1991 book, “Cyberpunk: Outlaws and Hackers on the Computer Frontier,” recalled the incident as an eye-opener.

“The significance of the Morris Worm was that it was the first event that brought computer networks to the attention of the broader American public,” he said. “Before that nobody realized their potential power in both good and bad ways.”