Amid the health, economic, and technology concerns related to the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s nice to take a break and look back at a simpler time. This week, we take a look back to when a Purdue University student named Dan Farmer was inspired by the Morris Worm to pursue a career in cybersecurity. He started down a path that led to the release of the Security Analysis Tool for Auditing Networks, or SATAN for short. (Insert snicker here.)

Farmer explained the start of his career path in a December 2014 interview with USENIX:

“Right before I graduated from Purdue there was a massive international security event called the Morris Worm. The network was getting slammed and people were running around in the halls trying to figure out what was going on. For whatever reason, the Worm captured my imagination like nothing had before.”

Farmer needed to take one last class; he talked professor Gene Spafford into allowing him to take a special course in which he used the little contemporary information then available to develop a security program called COPS. COPS led to positions at CERT and then Sun Microsystems, where Farmer spent his winter vacation figuring out how to hack into his colleagues’ computers.

Farmer finds a partner

In order to document his experiences for the greater good, he reached out to Dutch security expert Wietse Venema, who was intrigued by Farmer’s new side project. Together, they developed SATAN, which “detailed how to break into computers along with various defenses you could use to protect yourself.” The program had been written to scan a Unix host on a network and then issue a report about known security vulnerabilities as well as possible fixes.

On April 5, 1995, Farmer and Venema made SATAN publicly available. SATAN’s accessibility made people nervous — including Farmer’s bosses at Silicon Graphics Inc., who fired him. “We realize that SATAN is a two-edged sword — like many tools, it can be used for good and for evil purposes,” Farmer and Venema wrote. SATAN’s devilish effect on Farmer’s career didn’t last long: His old bosses at Sun were impressed and hired him back.

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Photo: Vladimir Sukhachev / Shutterstock

Kate Johanns

Posted by Kate Johanns

Kate Johanns is a communications professional and freelance writer with more than 13 years of experience in publishing and marketing.

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