Portrait of an artist as a young hacker

Those who lived, worked and programmed alongside Robert Tappan Morris, Jr. paint a verbal portrait of a man far removed from the stereotypical slide rule-toting computer nerd. Instead, they describe their now-infamous friend as a well-read and articulate student whose curiosity got away from him.

"He's not a nerd, not a geek and certainly not a purposeful wrongdoer," said family friend Peter Neumann, a computer security expert at the SRI International research center in Menlo Park, Calif. "He's bright and dedicated to computers, but there's nothing malicious or reckless about him."

Morris, who turned 23 on Election Day, is suspected of creating the virus that recently struck 6,000 computers in research centers, universities and military installations nationwide and ground the Internet computer network to a near-halt.

Mark Friedell, an assistant professor of computer science at Harvard University who served as Morris' thesis adviser, theorized that his former student was probably exploring a faulty protection mechanism in the Unix operating system when he made a critical lapse in judgment at an important time. Morris "should have taken two or three machines and formed a subnet, then disconnected it from Internet and let the virus spread," Friedell said. "Instead, Robert got famous for being a jerk."

Although computers are not Morris's all-consuming passion -- he reportedly also enjoys hockey, skiing, hiking and reads voraciously -- he spent so much time hovering over a computer screen that his friends referred to him by his logon, RTM.

Not that cracking a system was unthinkable for Morris. As news reports spread about the virus, at least one friend thought he recognized Morris' handiwork. "I immediately thought of Robert when I heard about it," said Richard Draves, a graduate student at Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh who roomed with Morris for two summers. "I knew he had talents in the same areas the virus exploited."

Draves added that Morris said he enjoyed cracking passwords as a student at the Delbarton School, an exclusive private high school in Morristown, N.J. "But I thought he'd given up on that," Draves said.

Morris' background made him particularly well-suited to the deed. His father, Robert T. Morris, Sr., is chief scientist and an expert on Unix security at the government's National Computer Security Center in Fort Meade, Md. The center, an arm of the National Security Agency, conducts research and sets standards for classified government computers and networks.

Still, others stressed that no actual evidence has yet been shown linking Morris to the incident. Robert Constable, a professor of computer science at Cornell University who interviewed Morris when he applied for admission and played on the same computer science department hockey team, called Morris a "serious, independent thinker, confident and self-assured," but one who "showed no sign of the kind of immaturity" that creating the virus necessitated.

When the smoke clears, the incident may be a mere bump in a promising career. "In the long run, Robert may be to be seen as a folk hero," Neumann said. "Maybe the way he did it wasn't the best way to do it, but if anyone is paying attention, he's done us a great service. In effect, he's said, 'Here's this Unix system that's not secure.' "

Senior writer Nell Margolis and Mid-Atlantic Correspondent Robert Moran also contributed to this report.


Copyright © 1988 IDG Communications, Inc.

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