Thirty-five years ago today (November 2nd), the Internet Worm program was set loose to propagate on the Internet. Noting that now to the computing public (and cybersecurity professionals, specifically) often generates an "Oh, really?" response akin to stating that November 2nd is the anniversary of the inaugural broadcast of the first BBC TV channel (1936), and the launch of Sputnik 2 with Laika aboard (1957). That is, to many, it is ho-hum, ancient history.
Perhaps that is to be expected after 35 years -- approximately the length of a human generation. (As an aside, I have been teaching at Purdue for 36 years. I have already taught students whose parents had taken one of my classes as a student; in five or so years, I may see students whose grandparents took one of my classes!). In 1988, fewer than 100,000 machines were likely connected to the Internet; thus, only a few thousand people were involved in systems administration and security. For us, the events were more profound, but we are outnumbered by today's user population; many of us have retired from the field...and more than a few have passed on. Thus, events of decades ago have become ancient history for current users.
Nonetheless, the event and its aftermath were profound for those who lived through it. No major security incident had ever occurred on such a scale before. The Worm was the top news story in international media for days. The events retold in Cliff Stoll's Cuckoo's Egg were only a few years earlier but had affected far fewer systems. However, that tale of computer espionage heightened concern by authorities in the days following the Worm's deployment regarding its origin and purpose. It seeded significant changes in law enforcement, defense funding and planning, and how we all looked at interconnectivity. In the following years, malware (and especially non-virus malware) became an increasing problem, from Code Red and Nimda to today's botnets and ransomware. All of that eventually led to a boom in add-on security measures, resulting in what is now a multi-billion dollar cybersecurity industry.
At the time of the Worm, the study of computing security (the term "cybersecurity" had not yet appeared) was primarily based around cryptography, formal verification of program correctness, and limiting covert channels. The Worm illustrated that there was a larger scope needed, although it took additional events (such as the aforementioned worms and malware) to drive the message home. Until the late 1990s, many people still believed cybersecurity was simply a matter of attentive cyber hygiene and not an independent, valid field of study. (I frequently encountered this attitude in academic circles, and was told it was present in the discussion leading to my tenure. That may seem difficult to believe today, but should not be surprising: Purdue has the oldest degree-granting CS department [60 years old this year], and it was initially viewed by some as simply glorified accounting! It is often the case that outsiders dismiss an emerging discipline as trivial or irrelevant.)
The Worm provided us with an object lesson about many issues that, unfortunately, were not heeded in full to this day. That multi-billion dollar cybersecurity industry is still failing to protect far too many of our systems. Among those lessons:
.rshrc files) created a playground for lateral movement across enterprises. We knew then that good security practice involved fully mediated access (now often referred to as "Zero Trust") and had known that for some time. However, convenience was viewed as more important than security...a problem that continues to vex us to this day. We continue to build systems that both enable effortless lateral movement, and make it difficult or annoying for users to reauthenticate, thus leading them to bypass the checks.
That last point is important as we debate the dangers and adverse side-effects of machine learning/LLM/AI systems. Those are being refined and deployed by people claiming they are not responsible for the (mis)use of (or errors in) those systems and that their economic potential outweighs any social costs. We have failed to clearly understand and internalize that not everything that can be done should be done, especially in the Internet at large. This is an issue that keeps coming up and we continue to fail to address it properly.
As a field, cybersecurity is relatively young. We have a history that arguably starts in the 1960s with the Ware Report. We are still discovering what is involved in protecting systems, data privacy, and safety. Heck, we still need a commonly accepted definition of what cybersecurity entails! (Cf. Chapter 1 of the Cybersecurity Myths book, referenced below.). The first cybersecurity degree program wasn't established until 2000 (at Purdue). We still lack useful metrics to know whether we are making significant progress and titrate investment. And we are still struggling with tools and techniques to create and maintain secure systems. All this while the market (and thus need) is expanding globally.
In that context of growth and need, we should not dismiss the past as "Ho-hum, history." Members of the military study historic battles to avoid future mistakes: mentioning the Punic Wars or The Battle of Thermopylae to such a scholar will not result in dismissal with "Not relevant." If you are interested in cybersecurity, it would be advisable to study some history of the field and think about lessons learned -- and unlearned.