July 22, 2024

Robert Morris, Pioneer in Computer Security, Dies at 78

Robert Morris, a cryptographer who helped developed the Unix computer operating system, which controls an increasing number of the world’s computers and touches almost every aspect of modern life, died on Sunday in Lebanon, N.H. He was 78.

The cause was complications of dementia, his wife, Anne Farlow Morris, said.

Known as an original thinker in the computer science world, Mr. Morris also played an important clandestine role in planning what was probably the nation’s first cyberwar: the electronic attacks on Saddam Hussein’s government in the months leading up to the Persian Gulf war of 1991.

Although details are still classified, the attacks, along with laser-guided bombs, are believed to have largely destroyed Iraq’s military command and control capability before the war began.

Begun as a research effort at ATT’s Bell Laboratories in the 1960s, Unix became one of the world’s leading operating systems, along with Microsoft’s Windows. Variations of the original Unix software, for example, now provide the foundation for Apple’s iPhone iOS and Macintosh OSX as well as Google’s Android operating systems.

As chief scientist of the National Security Agency’s National Computer Security Center, Mr. Morris gained unwanted national attention in 1988 after his son, Robert Tappan Morris, a graduate student in computer science at Cornell University, wrote a computer worm — a software program — that was able to propel itself through the Internet, then a brand-new entity.

Although it was intended to hide in the network as a bit of Kilroy-was-here digital graffiti, the program, because of a design error, spread wildly out of control, jamming more than 10 percent of the roughly 50,000 computers that made up the network at the time.

After realizing his error, the younger Mr. Morris fled to his parents’ home in Arnold, Md., before turning himself in to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. He was convicted under an early federal computer crime law, sentenced to probation and ordered to pay a $10,000 fine and perform community service. He later received a computer science doctorate at Harvard University and is now a member of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology computer science faculty.

Robert Morris was born in Boston on July 25, 1932, the son of Walter W. Morris, a salesman, and Helen Kelly Morris. He earned a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and a master’s in applied mathematics from Harvard.

At Bell Laboratories he initially worked on the design of specialized software tools known as compilers, which convert programmers’ instructions into machine-readable language that can be directly executed by computers.

Beginning in 1970, he worked with the Unix research group at Bell Laboratories, where he was a major contributor in both the numerical functions of the operating system and its security capabilities, including the password system and encryption functions.

His interest in computer security deepened in the late 1970s as he continued to explore cryptography, the study and practice of protecting information by converting it into code. With another researcher, he began working on an academic paper that unraveled an early German encryption device.

Before the paper could be published, however, he received an unexpected call from the National Security Agency. The agency invited him to visit, and when he met with officials, they asked him not to publish the paper because of what it might reveal about the vulnerabilities of modern cryptographic systems.

He complied, and in 1986 went to work for the agency in protecting government computers and in projects involving electronic surveillance and online warfare. Although little is known about his classified work for the government, Mr. Morris told a reporter that on occasion he would help the F.B.I. by decoding encrypted evidence.

In 1994, he retired to Etna, N.H., where he was living at his death.

In addition to his wife and his son Robert, of Cambridge, Mass., Mr. Morris is survived by a daughter, Meredith Morris, of Washington; another son, Benjamin, of Chester, N.J.; and two grandchildren.

Article source: http://feeds.nytimes.com/click.phdo?i=c6200e85ceb5c4434b2c1eb06e414108

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