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9/11 and the Code Red computer worm

Twelve years already. Hard to believe.

There are some spooky details of that 2001 summer that I’ve never brought up publicly. I’m about to do that. But first, a quick recap of what I remember from that Tuesday morning, September 11, 2001.

I was 32, and had been working at home for a couple years by that point. Had a pretty sweet telecommuting gig as a “webmaster” for a couple dotcom startups. Back in those days, we literally had to manage our own physical servers, which we kept “colocated” in high-security data centers.

Kona was two and a half. My buddy. We were together 24/7 during those days.

I was living in a four-story townhouse. My wife at the time was working a graveyard shift the night before, and wasn’t home yet. As daylight broke on September 11, it was just me and Kona upstairs in the bedroom.

NOTE: This was long before cell phones were the norm; we did most of our voice communication using ancient devices called “landlines”. And when we weren’t home, we configured something called an “answering machine” that would record voicemails of all our missed calls.

In those early dawn hours on September 11, I remember hearing the landline down in the kitchen ringing. Maybe a couple times. I dozed off each time before doing anything about it. Pillow over my head. Convinced it was a wrong number.

Around maybe 6:41 AM PST, the landline rang again. Now conscious, I realized something was up.

I pulled myself out of bed, descended two flights of stairs, and went to the kitchen. Not much different than any other morning, although it was earlier. First course of action was to get the espresso going, and prepare Kona’s breakfast.

I remember entering the dark kitchen, barefoot. Cold linoleum under my feet. Kona tagging along. The first thing I looked at was the illuminated digital display from the phone’s answering machine. In red: “6”

Uh-oh. In my gut, I knew something was wrong. Who died?

I remember a sense of adrenaline and shock setting in, and I didn’t even know what had happened yet. I oddly felt calm, and, like a robot, I proceeded to do my routine of making espresso and feeding the dog. Whatever those voice messages were would be there in two minutes. I remember feeling in no real hurry to listen to them. I almost wanted to savor a couple extra minutes of quiet normalcy before hitting that Play button. Just me and my dog. I somehow knew I didn’t want to know yet. The long day ahead could wait ninety more seconds.

With the espresso on and Kona munching away, I finally hit the Play button. As the messages played out, I remember staring at my bare toes against the yellow-and-brown seventies-era linoleum.

“Jace! Are you watching? Turn on the TV…”

“Dude! Are you up? Call me…”

“Jace, it’s Dad…”

“Hey bro, terrorists have hit New York… this is insane…”

“Jace, it’s Mom… the news just showed a plane flying into the World Trade Center…”

After listening to about eighteen minutes of recorded messages, the phone rang again. I answered it and walked over to finally flip on the TV. It was then about 7AM, and chaos was in full swing. The south tower had just collapsed, and they were replaying the footage over and over and over.

I spent the next half hour on the phone, glued to the TV during the torturous minutes that elapsed between the collapse of the first tower and the second tower. Within about a half hour, the second of the two fell. Live television. It was surreal.

The rest of the day was put on hold. Lots of emails, lots of chatrooms. I flipped on TechTV, one of my favorite shows at the time. Probably because I had a thing for Jessica Corbin. In any case, big Jess, Leo Laporte, Kevin Rose, Chris Pirillo, Erica Hill, and company were serving up the play-by-play, feeding information as it came in from various sources on the web. Remember, this was long before social media. When it came to accurate and up-to-the-minute information gathering, TechTV carried us that day.

The next few hours were anxious ones. I recall time going by in slow motion as the world waited to determine the location of Flight 93, the “missing plane”. There was lots of speculation, and no scenario looked good. Flight 93 ultimately went down in Pennsylvania, with a fascinating story behind it. You already know that one.

So that was my morning. Now, I’d like to back up a couple months. Let’s go back to July of 2001.

The summer of 2001 was a news-filled one for webmasters, particularly for those running Microsoft IIS, a web serving platform. In July, eEye Digital Security employees discovered something called a “computer worm” called Code Red. A worm is a type of virus that, in layman’s terms, executes a script on a web server that creates a buffer overflow, confusing the machine, causing it to follow a string of bogus instructions, propagating the worm to other machines.

If infected with Code Red, a web server would reportedly throw up the following message for every site it hosted:

HELLO! Welcome to http://www.worm.com! Hacked By Chinese!

After extensive research, security personnel eventually determined that Code Red was ultimately intended to take down the United States White House’s subnet (a block of IP addresses), theoretically crippling the American government’s communications infrastructure. Upon this discovery, the White House moved its subnet to another block before getting slammed. Good thing.

Again, ^^this was all HUGE news that summer. If you weren’t technically involved, you probably never heard about it. A true case of “you had to be there.”

Throughout July and August of that summer, we webmasters were faced with the critical responsibility of “patching” our vulnerable servers by August 31, which was supposedly the date the worm was gonna go into effect. The Microsoft website had the “Code Red patch” right there on the home page, urging everyone to patch their IIS servers immediately. Data center tech support personnel had their hands full, and were making quite a bit of supplemental coin from their colocated clients to “handle the situation” for them and install the patch.

As was the case with Y2K, the deadline date of August 31 came and went without much drama. That seemed to be that. We could finally move on with our lives.

Then came September 11. A day that changed our world forever. Not surprisingly, the magnitude of the 9/11 attacks totally eclipsed the relatively minor “threat” that the Code Worm posed just weeks earlier.

But to this day, part of me still believes the Code Red worm was part of the 9/11 effort. A failed part, that is.

It makes perfect sense. Think about it. The masterminds behind the 9/11 attacks were sending a clear message, hitting nearly every major facet of American society:

— Our ECONOMY. The WTC towers being the symbol of that.
— Our GOVERNMENT. One of the planes hit the Pentagon. It’s believed that Flight 93 was aimed for the White House itself, or (even more visually dramatic) the Capitol.
— Our IDENTITY. They chose AMERICAN Airlines and UNITED Airlines.
— Our MEDIA. Hell, they even got us to cover it ourselves.
— Our numerical code for EMERGENCY. The chose a perfect date.

What better way to cap all that off by hitting our COMMUNICATIONS? Imagine if the Code Red worm had been successful, effectively making digital communications impossible. Can you even fathom how much more chaotic that morning would have been?

To this day, I have yet to speak to another person who ever saw the connection between the failed Code Red worm and the larger 9/11 plan. Not that it really makes much of a difference today. It’s probably moot. But still.

9/11 was awful. Unthinkable. But it could’ve been a lot worse. Looking on the bright side, I suppose one could declare that we, as Vin Scully would say, “got out of that one cheaply enough.”

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