How The 'Computer Wizard' Who Created The First Internet Virus Got Off Without A Day Of Jail


Robert Tappan Morris


Robert Tappan Morris

The suicide of 26-year-old Aaron Swartz has spurred calls to reform the federal anti-hacking law used to prosecute him for illegally downloading millions of academic articles at the MIT campus.


The controversy over Swartz's prosecution echoes some of the public response to the very first person convicted under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act of 1986: Robert Tappan Morris, who now teaches at MIT.

In November 1988, the then-23-year-old Cornell graduate student wrote a program that led to unprecedented interruption of computers around the country.

That worm, now known as the Morris worm, infected as many as 6,000 computers, according to a Legal Affairs article on the case.

Morris says he released the worm to figure out how big the Internet was, but it seems he believed he might have been doing something wrong. Like Swartz who came after him, Morris performed his alleged computer crime at the MIT campus and not his own school -- a move ostensibly designed to cover his tracks.


Prosecutors went after him under the CFAA, seeking to hold him up as an example in a case that could have put the young genius behind bars for as many as five years, The New York Times reported at the time.

The case divided people in the computer industry and in the entire nation over whether he should go to jail., and The Times reported Morris could represent a "turning point in how society views its computer wizards."

"Even if it was a prank gone awry, this is too serious not to include jail time," Kenneth Rosenblatt, a California state prosecutor specializing in high-technology crimes, told The Times in 1990.

But Morris didn't get any jail time, even though his eponymous worm created a huge hassle for a lot of people. Instead, he got 400 hours of community service and had to pay just $10,000.

Judge Howard Munson suggested Morris shouldn't have to go to jail because he didn't lie to anybody, The Times reported at the time.


"The characteristics of this case were not fraud and deceit," Munson said.

The Times did not elaborate on the judge's reasoning, but the book "Principles of Information Security" points out that Morris reached out for help when he realized the program was replicating itself much faster than he imagined.

Morris contacted a friend from Harvard, and they sent a message to systems administrators there about what was going on and gave them instructions on how to dismantle the virus. (It was apparently too little too late, according to Principles of Information Security.)

Morris went on to get his doctorate from Harvard and even return to MIT, this time to teach. We'll never know what else Reddit cofounder Aaron Swartz, the latest high-profile defendant under the CFAA, would have accomplished in his life. But it's clear prosecutors wanted Swartz to go to jail, at least for a few months.