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would be scrapped. It was pretty much now or never for Galileo.

Despite torrential downpours which had deposited 100 millimetres of

rain on the launchpad and 150 millimetres in neighbouring Melbourne,

Florida, the countdown had been going well. Until now. NASA took its

decision. The launch would be delayed by five days, to 17 October, so

the computer problem could be fixed.

To those scientists and engineers who had been with Galileo from the

start, it must have appeared at that moment as if fate really was

against Galileo. As if, for some unfathomable reason, all the forces

of the universe--and especially those on Earth--were dead against

humanity getting a good look at Jupiter. As fast as NASA could

dismantle one barrier, some invisible hand would throw another down in

its place.

[ ]
Monday, 16 October, 1989

NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Maryland

Across the vast NASA empire, reaching from Maryland to California,

from Europe to Japan, NASA workers greeted each other, checked their

in-trays for mail, got their cups of coffee, settled into their chairs

and tried to login to their computers for a day of solving complex

physics problems. But many of the computer systems were behaving very


From the moment staff logged in, it was clear that someone--or

something--had taken over. Instead of the usual system's official

identification banner, they were startled to find the following

message staring them in the face:


\__ ____________ _____ ________ ____ ____ __ _____/

\ \ \ /\ / / / /\ \ | \ \ | | | | / / /

\ \ \ / \ / / / /__\ \ | |\ \ | | | |/ / /

\ \ \/ /\ \/ / / ______ \ | | \ \| | | |\ \ /

\_\ /__\ /____/ /______\ \____| |__\ | |____| |_\ \_/


\ /

\ Your System Has Been Officically WANKed /

You talk of times of peace for all, and then prepare for war.
Wanked? Most of the American computer system managers reading this new

banner had never heard the word wank.

Who would want to invade NASA's computer systems? And who exactly were

the Worms Against Nuclear Killers? Were they some loony fringe group?

Were they a guerrilla terrorist group launching some sort of attack on

NASA? And why `worms'? A worm was a strange choice of animal mascot

for a revolutionary group. Worms were the bottom of the rung. As in

`as lowly as a worm'. Who would chose a worm as a symbol of power?

As for the nuclear killers, well, that was even stranger. The banner's

motto--`You talk of times of peace for all, and then prepare for

war'--just didn't seem to apply to NASA. The agency didn't make

nuclear missiles, it sent people to the moon. It did have military

payloads in some of its projects, but NASA didn't rate very highly on

the `nuclear killer' scale next to other agencies of the US

Government, such as the Department of Defense. So the question

remained: why NASA?

And that word, `WANKED'. It did not make sense. What did it mean when

a system was `wanked'?

It meant NASA had lost control over its computer systems.

A NASA scientist logging in to an infected computer on that Monday got

the following message:

deleted file

deleted file

deleted file

deleted file

deleted file

deleted file

With those lines the computer told the scientist: `I am deleting all

your files'.

The line looked exactly as if the scientist typed in the


delete/log *.*

--exactly as if the scientist had instructed the computer to delete

all the files herself.

The NASA scientist must have started at the sight of her files rolling

past on the computer screen, one after another, on their way to

oblivion. Something was definitely wrong. She would have tried to stop

the process, probably pressing the control key and the `c' key at the

same time. This should have broken the command sequence at that moment

and ordered the computer to stop what it was doing right away.

But it was the intruder, not the NASA scientist, who controlled the

computer at that moment. And the intruder told the computer: `That

command means nothing. Ignore it'.

The scientist would press the command key sequence again, this time

more urgently. And again, over and over. She would be at once baffled

at the illogical nature of the computer, and increasingly upset.

Weeks, perhaps months, of work spent uncovering the secrets of the

universe. All of it disappearing before her eyes--all of it being

mindlessly devoured by the computer. The whole thing beyond her

control. Going. Going. Gone.

People tend not to react well when they lose control over their

computers. Typically, it brings out the worst in them--hand-wringing

whines from the worriers, aching entreaties for help from the

sensitive, and imperious table-thumping bellows from

command-and-control types.

Imagine, if you will, arriving at your job as a manager for one of

NASA's local computer systems. You get into your office on that Monday

morning to find the phones ringing. Every caller is a distraught,

confused NASA worker. And every caller assures you that his or her

file or accounting record or research project--every one of which is

missing from the computer system--is absolutely vital.

In this case, the problem was exacerbated by the fact that NASA's

field centres often competed with each other for projects. When a

particular flight project came up, two or three centres, each with

hundreds of employees, might vie for it. Losing control of the

computers, and all the data, project proposals and costing, was a good

way to lose out on a bid and its often

considerable funding.

This was not going to be a good day for the guys down at the NASA SPAN

computer network office.

This was not going to be a good day for John McMahon.

[ ]
As the assistant DECNET protocol manager for NASA's Goddard Space

Flight Center in Maryland, John McMahon normally spent the day

managing the chunk of the SPAN computer network which ran between

Goddard's fifteen to twenty buildings.

McMahon worked for Code 630.4, otherwise known as Goddard's Advanced

Data Flow Technology Office, in Building 28. Goddard scientists would

call him up for help with their computers. Two of the most common

sentences he heard were `This doesn't seem to work' and `I can't get

to that part of the network from here'.

SPAN was the Space Physics Analysis Network, which connected some

100000 computer terminals across the globe. Unlike the Internet, which

is now widely accessible to the general public, SPAN only connected

researchers and scientists at NASA, the US Department of Energy and

research institutes such as universities. SPAN computers also differed

from most Internet computers in an important technical manner: they

used a different operating system. Most large computers on the

Internet use the Unix operating system, while SPAN was composed

primarily of VAX computers running a VMS operating system. The network

worked a lot like the Internet, but the computers spoke a different

language. The Internet `talked' TCP/IP, while SPAN `spoke' DECNET.

Indeed, the SPAN network was known as a DECNET internet. Most of the

computers on it were manufactured by the Digital Equipment Corporation

in Massachusetts--hence the name DECNET. DEC built powerful computers.

Each DEC computer on the SPAN network might have 40 terminals hanging

off it. Some SPAN computers had many more. It was not unusual for one

DEC computer to service 400 people. In all, more than a quarter of a

million scientists, engineers and other thinkers used the computers on

the network.

An electrical engineer by training, McMahon had come from NASA's

Cosmic Background Explorer Project, where he managed computers used by

a few hundred researchers. Goddard's Building 7, where he worked on

the COBE project, as it was known, housed some interesting research.

The project team was attempting to map the universe. And they were

trying to do it in wavelengths invisible to the human eye. NASA would

launch the COBE satellite in November 1989. Its mission was to

`measure the diffuse infrared and microwave radiation from the early

universe, to the limits set by our astronomical environment'.6 To the

casual observer the project almost sounded like a piece of modern art,

something which might be titled `Map of the Universe in Infrared'.

On 16 October McMahon arrived at the office and settled into work,

only to face a surprising phone call from the SPAN project office.

Todd Butler and Ron Tencati, from the National Space Science Data

Center, which managed NASA's half of the SPAN network, had discovered

something strange and definitely unauthorised winding its way through

the computer network. It looked like a computer worm.

A computer worm is a little like a computer virus. It invades computer

systems, interfering with their normal functions. It travels along any

available compatible computer network and stops to knock at the door of

systems attached to that network. If there is a hole in the security of

the computer system, it will crawl through and enter the system. When it

does this, it might have instructions to do any number of things, from

sending computer users a message to trying to take over the system. What

makes a worm different from other computer programs, such as viruses, is

that it is self-propagating. It propels itself forward, wiggles into a

new system and propagates itself at the new site. Unlike a virus, a worm

doesn't latch onto a data file or a program. It is autonomous.7

The term `worm' as applied to computers came from John Brunner's 1975

science fiction classic, The Shockwave Rider. The novel described how

a rebel computer programmer created a program called `tapeworm' which

was released into an omnipotent computer network used by an autocratic

government to control its people. The government had to turn off the

computer network, thus destroying its control, in order to eradicate

the worm.

Brunner's book is about as close as most VMS computer network managers

would ever have come to a real rogue worm. Until the late 1980s, worms

were obscure things, more associated with research in a computer

laboratory. For example, a few benevolent worms were developed by

Xerox researchers who wanted to make more efficient use of computer

facilities.8 They developed a `town crier worm' which moved through a

network sending out important announcements. Their `diagnostic worm'

also constantly weaved through the network, but this worm was designed

to inspect machines for problems.

For some computer programmers, the creation of a worm is akin to the

creation of life. To make something which is intelligent enough to go

out and reproduce itself is the ultimate power of creation. Designing

a rogue worm which took over NASA's computer systems might seem to be

a type of creative immortality--like scattering pieces of oneself

across the computers which put man on the moon.

At the time the WANK banner appeared on computer screens across NASA,

there had only been two rogue worms of any note. One of these, the RTM

worm, had infected the Unix-based Internet less than twelve months

earlier. The other worm, known as Father Christmas, was the first VMS


Father Christmas was a small, simple worm which did not cause any

permanent damage to the computer networks it travelled along. Released

just before Christmas in 1988, it tried to sneak into hundreds of VMS

machines and wait for the big day. On Christmas morning, it woke up

and set to work with great enthusiasm. Like confetti tossed from an

overhead balcony, Christmas greetings came streaming out of

worm-infested computer systems to all their users. No-one within its

reach went without a Christmas card. Its job done, the worm

evaporated. John McMahon had been part of the core team fighting off

the Father Christmas worm.

At about 4 p.m., just a few days before Christmas 1988, McMahon's

alarm-monitoring programs began going haywire. McMahon began trying to

trace back the dozens of incoming connections which were tripping the

warning bells. He quickly discovered there wasn't a human being at the

other end of the line. After further investigation, he found an alien

program in his system, called HI.COM. As he read the pages of HI.COM

code spilling from his line printer, his eyes went wide. He thought,

This is a worm! He had never seen a worm before.

He rushed back to his console and began pulling his systems off the

network as quickly as possible. Maybe he wasn't following protocol,

but he figured people could yell at him after the fact if they thought

it was a bad idea. After he had shut down his part of the network, he

reported back to the local area networking office. With print-out in

tow, he drove across the base to the network office, where he and

several other managers developed a way to stop the worm by the end of

the day. Eventually they traced the Father Christmas worm back to the

system where they believed it had been released--in Switzerland. But

they never discovered who created it.

Father Christmas was not only a simple worm; it was not considered

dangerous because it didn't hang around systems forever. It was a worm

with a use-by date.

By contrast, the SPAN project office didn't know what the WANK invader

was capable of doing. They didn't know who had written or launched it.

But they had a copy of the program. Could McMahon have a look at it?

An affable computer programmer with the nickname Fuzzface, John

McMahon liked a good challenge. Curious and cluey at the same time, he

asked the SPAN Project Office, which was quickly becoming the crisis

centre for the worm attack, to send over a copy of the strange

intruder. He began pouring over the invader's seven printed pages of

source code trying to figure out exactly what the thing did.

The two previous rogue worms only worked on specific computer systems

and networks. In this case, the WANK worm only attacked VMS computer

systems. The source code, however, was unlike anything McMahon had

ever seen. `It was like sifting through a pile of spaghetti,' he said.

`You'd pull one strand out and figure, "OK, that is what that thing

does." But then you'd be faced with the rest of the tangled mess in

the bowl.'

The program, in digital command language, or DCL, wasn't written like

a normal program in a nice organised fashion. It was all over the

place. John worked his way down ten or fifteen lines of computer code

only to have to jump to the top of the program to figure out what the

next section was trying to do. He took notes and slowly, patiently

began to build up a picture of exactly what this worm was capable of

doing to NASA's computer system.

[ ]

It was a big day for the anti-nuclear groups at the Kennedy Space

Center. They might have lost their bid in the US District Court, but

they refused to throw in the towel and took their case to the US Court

of Appeals.

On 16 October the news came. The Appeals Court had sided with NASA.

Protesters were out in force again at the front gate of the Kennedy

Space Center. At least eight of them were arrested. The St Louis

Post-Dispatch carried an Agence France-Presse picture of an

80-year-old woman being taken into custody by police for trespassing.

Jane Brown, of the Florida Coalition for Peace and Justice, announced,

`This is just ... the beginning of the government's plan to use

nuclear power and weapons in space, including the Star Wars program'.

Inside the Kennedy Center, things were not going all that smoothly

either. Late Monday, NASA's technical experts discovered yet another

problem. The black box which gathered speed and other important data

for the space shuttle's navigation system was faulty. The technicians

were replacing the cockpit device, the agency's spokeswoman assured

the media, and NASA was not expecting to delay the Tuesday launch

date. The countdown would continue uninterrupted. NASA had everything

under control.

Everything except the weather.

In the wake of the Challenger disaster, NASA's guidelines for a launch

decision were particularly tough. Bad weather was an unnecessary risk,

but NASA was not expecting bad weather. Meteorologists predicted an 80

per cent chance of favourable weather at launch time on Tuesday. But

the shuttle had better go when it was supposed to, because the longer

term weather outlook was grim.

By Tuesday morning, Galileo's keepers were holding their breath. The

countdown for the shuttle launch was ticking toward 12.57 p.m. The

anti-nuclear protesters seemed to have gone quiet. Things looked

hopeful. Galileo might finally go.

Then, about ten minutes before the launch time, the security alarms

went off. Someone had broken into the compound. The security teams

swung into action, quickly locating the guilty intruder ... a feral


With the pig safely removed, the countdown rolled on. And so did the

rain clouds, gliding toward the space shuttle's emergency runway, about

six kilometres from the launchpad. NASA launch director Robert Sieck

prolonged a planned `hold' at T minus nine minutes. Atlantis had a

26-minute window of opportunity. After that, its launch period would

expire and take-off would have to be postponed, probably until


The weather wasn't going to budge.

At 1.18 p.m., with Atlantis's countdown now holding at just T minus

five minutes, Sieck postponed the launch to Wednesday.

[ ]

Back at the SPAN centre, things were becoming hectic. The worm was

spreading through more and more systems and the phones were beginning

to ring every few minutes. NASA computers were getting hit all over

the place.

The SPAN project staff needed more arms. They were simultaneously

trying to calm callers and concentrate on developing an analysis of

the alien program. Was the thing a practical joke or a time bomb just

waiting to go off? Who was behind this?

NASA was working in an information void when it came to WANK. Some

staff knew of the protesters' action down at the Space Center, but

nothing could have prepared them for this. NASA officials were

confident enough about a link between the protests against Galileo and

the attack on NASA's computers to speculate publicly that the two were

related. It seemed a reasonable likelihood, but there were still

plenty of unanswered questions.

Callers coming into the SPAN office were worried. People at the other

end of the phone were scared. Many of the calls came from network

managers who took care of a piece of SPAN at a specific NASA site, such

as the Marshall Space Flight Center. Some were panicking; others spoke

in a sort of monotone, flattened by a morning of calls from 25 different

hysterical system administrators. A manager could lose his job over

something like this.

Most of the callers to the SPAN head office were starved for

information. How did this rogue worm get into their computers? Was it

malicious? Would it destroy all the scientific data it came into contact

with? What could be done to kill it?

NASA stored a great deal of valuable information on its SPAN

computers. None of it was supposed to be classified, but the data on

those computers is extremely valuable. Millions of man-hours go into

gathering and analysing it. So the crisis team which had formed in the

NASA SPAN project office, was alarmed when reports of massive data

destruction starting coming in. People were phoning to say that the

worm was erasing files.

It was every computer manager's worst nightmare, and it looked as

though the crisis team's darkest fears were about to be confirmed.

Yet the worm was behaving inconsistently. On some computers it would

only send anonymous messages, some of them funny, some bizarre and a

few quite rude or obscene. No sooner would a user login than a message

would flash across his or her screen:

Remember, even if you win the rat race--you're

still a rat.

Or perhaps they were graced with some bad humour:

Nothing is faster than the speed of light...

To prove this to yourself, try opening the refrigerator door before

the light comes on.

Other users were treated to anti-authoritarian observations of the


The FBI is watching YOU.


Vote anarchist.

But the worm did not appear to be erasing files on these systems.

Perhaps the seemingly random file-erasing trick was a portent of

things to come--just a small taste of what might happen at a

particular time, such as midnight. Perhaps an unusual keystroke by an

unwitting computer user on those systems which seemed only mildly

affected could trigger something in the worm. One keystroke might

begin an irreversible chain of commands to erase everything on that


The NASA SPAN computer team were in a race with the worm. Each minute

they spent trying to figure out what it did, the worm was pushing

forward, ever deeper into NASA's computer network. Every hour NASA

spent developing a cure, the worm spent searching, probing, breaking

and entering. A day's delay in getting the cure out to all the systems

could mean dozens of new worm invasions doing God knows what in

vulnerable computers. The SPAN team had to dissect this thing

completely, and they had to do it fast.

Some computer network managers were badly shaken. The SPAN office

received a call from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratories in California,

an important NASA centre with 6500 employees and close ties to

California Institute of Technology (Caltech).

JPL was pulling itself off the network.

This worm was too much of a risk. The only safe option was to isolate

their computers. There would be no SPAN DEC-based communications with

the rest of NASA until the crisis was under control. This made things

Directory: ~suelette -> underground

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