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When system managers blame the messenger, watch out

technofile  by al fasoldt

Columns and commentaries in a life-long dance with technology

Simple gray rule

When system managers blame the messenger, watch out

By Al Fasoldt

Copyright © 1988, The Syracuse Newspapers

Remarks I made about computer viruses last week raised a storm of controversy on an international telecommunications network.

I was accused of stupidity, ignorance and lack of professionalism.


Because I had blamed the systems managers—the people in charge of large computer systems—instead of the hackers who create the viruses.

I figured that sort of criticism was coming. I had rattled the cages of the people who are in charge. I gave the fire storm of reaction all the respect it deserved—which was none.

I stand firmly by my belief that the managers of our corporate and university computer systems have been irresponsible. They should have paid attention to the threat of infiltrations by hackers, yet most of them have ignored the danger.

They can level all the blasts they want in my direction. I like a good fight. but I found it strange that a good deal of angry comment came my way for two other reasons.

First, I was attacked because I called the program that a Cornell graduate student inserted into computers around the country a virus. It wasn't a virus at all, I was told. It was a worm.

A worm?

It was a term I thought might have fitted my attackers, some of whom hid behind false names so I wouldn't know who they really were. (Many computer networks allow you to use a "handle," or nickname, when you send electronic mail.)

So I checked up on the terminology. But before I tell you what I learned, I want to explain the second oddity.

I was criticized because I called Robert Morris, who created the offending program, a hacker.

Get it straight, I was told. Morris isn't a hacker. He's a cracker.

A worm? A cracker?

Polly wants an explanation.

"Cracker" I know about already. It's a term that hackers made up a few years ago to get the heat off themselves.

Here's what the two terms mean:

Hacker: Someone who enjoys figuring out how computers work and loves the challenge of learning the secrets of untried systems. A classic hacker believes that computers belong to the people, and therefore it is not wrong to enter someone else's system without permission. (Most modern hackers dispute this part of the definition; many of them respect the closed computer systems of others.)

Cracker: A hacker who breaks into someone else's computer system by "cracking" the codes to get in.

As you can see, a "cracker" is nothing more than a "hacker" without ethics. But keep in mind the old example you learned in grade school—that all cows have legs but not all animals that have legs are cows—and realize that while all crackers are hackers, not all hackers are crackers.

So Robert Morris is indeed a hacker. He is also a cracker.

But what about the worm?

It turns out that what Morris planted was indeed a worm, and not a virus. A worm makes the computer sick, and so does a virus. They're similar in another way, too: Both of them can have babies (more properly, they can replicate themselves).

But only a virus can infect the operating system of the host computer. The program Morris sent into the national computer networks didn't do that; it merely did its work alongside the operating system.

So all of us who write about what happened on Nov. 2 should mind our P's and Q's and our crackers and worms, and choose our words more carefully. We should say something like this: A cracker stuck a worm in the computers.

Will this make my critics happy?

Of course not. They're not interested in solving the problem. They're interested in playing a word game.

You see, it doesn't matter what we call it. The problem exists even if we give it the wrong name. It still has to be solved, and the only way to solve it is to get serious about it.

I don't mind getting serious about naming it, but after all, a rose is a rose is . . .

Well, you get my point.

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