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The "Father Christmas worm"

James Green, Patricia Sisson
NASA Technical Reports, Published in the 12th National Computer Security Conference Proceedings
June 1989

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Abstract

Three days before Christmas 1988, a computer worm was released on a very large international DECnet network. The worm reproduced itself and was received on an estimated 6,000 computer nodes worldwide. However, only a small percentage of these nodes actually executed the program. The computers that successfully ran the program would try to propagate the worm to other computer nodes.

The worm was released onto the DECnet Intemet from a computer at a university in Switzerland. Within 10 minutes after it was released, the worm was detected on the Space Physics Analysis Network, or SPAN, which is NASA's largest space and Earth science network. Once the source program for the worm was captured, a procedural cure, using existing functionality of the computer operating systems, was quickly devised and distributed. A combination of existing computer security measures, the quick and accurate procedures devised to stop copies of the worm from executing, and the network itself, were used to rapidly provide the cure. These were the main reasons why the worm executed on such a small percentage of nodes.

The purpose behind the worm was to send an electronic mall message to all users on the computer system running the worm. The message was a Christmas greeting and was signed "Father Christmas." This paper presents an overview of the analysis of the events concerning the worm based on an investigation that was made by the SPAN Security Team and provides some insight into future security measures that will be taken to handle computer worms and viruses that may hit similar networks in the future.

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