Tech Time Warp: Father Christmas leaves a lump of coal for NASA
These days, there seems to be a festive seasonal version of everything. Even items you never dreamed possible (such as cat litter). Malware is no exception. In this edition of Tech Time Warp, we look back at 35 years ago, on December 22, 1988, the Father Christmas worm traveled to NASA. This worm originated not at the North Pole but in Switzerland, and it didn’t travel by sleigh. Instead, it came via DECnet, one of the first peer-to-peer network architectures. As on the modern internet, DECnet users could send emails, transfer files, and even log on remotely.
Rapid detection and containment: Father Christmas worm on NASA’s SPAN
The good news is the Father Christmas worm was detected within 10 minutes of its arrival. NASA’s Space Physics Analysis Network (SPAN) programmers were able to quickly analyze the worm’s source code. They were able to use the existing DECnet operating system to deploy a solution and stop Father Christmas from making too many stops. The worm only reached an estimated 6,000 computer nodes across SPAN which connected NASA, government, private-sector, and university computers in the U.S., as well as communicated with the European Space Agency’s network. Of those nodes, few executed the actual worm, which was an electronic Christmas greeting signed by Father Christmas.
The worm arrived via a “friendly” message from jolly ol’ St. Nick himself, lamenting some of the changes in Christmas: “I’m getting more and more letters from the children every year and it’s not so easy to get the terrible Rambo-Guns, Tanks and Spaceships up here at the Northpole. … Anyhow the chimneys are getting tighter and tighter every year.”
Although the worm was traced to the University of Neuchatel, the identity of its creator remains unknown. According to a SPAN post-mortem on the worm, the username associated with Father Christmas was used by multiple scientists with a password that “could have easily been known campus-wide.”
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