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Space Security

Is SETI a Security Risk? 527

Dotnaught writes "Richard Carrigan, a particle physicist at the US Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Illinois, fears the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) may be putting the earth at risk. As reported in the Guardian, Carrigan frets that alien radio signals could pose a security risk. The report cites a 2003 paper entitled "Do potential Seti signals need to be decontaminated?" but Carrigan's website has more details. Basically, he's calling for isolation of SETI computers and additional security measures. He writes, "To paraphrase Cocconi and Morrison for the possibility of a malevolent SETI signal ...the probability of a contaminated SETI signal is difficult to estimate; but if we never consider it the chance of infection is not zero."" Frankly, I'm more worried about some phishing malcontent then I am about the Grays, but maybe that's just me.
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Is SETI a Security Risk?

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  • Chicken and Egg. (Score:5, Insightful)

    by FalconZero ( 607567 ) * <> on Monday November 28, 2005 @10:26AM (#14128495)
    From TFA:
    1. Raw signal in memory must bootstrap to status of operating program
    2. Program must then untangle the inner workings of the host. (Is it possible to now build a diagnosis program to determine the operating set of an unfamiliar computer?)
    I'm not a software engineer but... no, wait, I AM a software engineer, so I'm curious, how does this 'virus' execute step 1 [Buffer Overrun & Privilage Escalation] without doing step 2 first [Determine instruction set for system] (Which incidentally requires step one to have been performed first.)
    As far as I see it, theres as much chance of data in the recieve buffer created by background radiation being a viable 'virus' as there is a deliberate chunk of data will be

    This sounds suspiciously like :
    1) Send malicious code
    2) ...
    3) Infect universe (and profit)
    • by Nos. ( 179609 ) <andrew@ t h e> on Monday November 28, 2005 @10:29AM (#14128510) Homepage
      They did it in Independance Day!
      • by flyingsquid ( 813711 ) on Monday November 28, 2005 @01:49PM (#14130465)
        I have this image of a computer virus taking over every computer on earth, then using our antennas and satellite to repeatedly broadcast the message "ENLARGE your COPULATORY TENTACLES! Tentaculis®, SAND WORM extract, and Dilithium Sulfide, it really works and without a prescription! Pills CHEAP from" for light years around.

        Then an armada of warships bearing atomizer rays and a bunch of very annnoyed aliens arrives...

    • Ask Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum.
      I get the idea that Steve Jobs might have something to say about it as well.

      To me, the idea that an outside signal can be manipulated and sent in just the right way to overflow our validation network is akin to shakespeare and monkeys.

      However - I can see somebody managing to send dirty packets down to the clients after hacking the SETI central computers (somehow, lots of hand waving etc) to put bad data there which could exploit a seemingly trivial problem with the seti clie
    • by Anonymous Coward
      No, no, statistical evidence shows that they're most likely to be running Windows - not to mention the lower TCO reduces the running cost of your mothership compared to free alternatives.

      Wait, we all know from Independence Day that the aliens use Mac OS.
      • by Taevin ( 850923 ) * on Monday November 28, 2005 @12:36PM (#14129754)
        Lower TCO indeed because you get Microsoft's Genuine Intergalactic Technical Support hotline.

        "Thank you for calling Microsoft's Genuine Intergalactic Technical Support. If you are experiencing a problem with a factory installed Windows Galaxy edition, please contact your manufacturer.

        If you are calling about a non-critical issue, please emit one tachyon burst directed at Microsoft's Genuine Advantage Galactic Transmission satellite.

        If you are calling about a security hole that was exploited by the Scourge causing the destruction of half your intergalactic fleet, please wait one (1) business day before targeting Microsoft's campus with your quantum torpedos.

        If you are experiencing a total system failure preventing your navagation computer from function and are on a direct collision course with Earth, please wait on the line for a Microsoft Certified Windows Galaxy edition technician. Please note that we are experiencing a high call volume at this time, and you may be on hold for 12-24 hours.

        Thank you for calling Microsoft's Genuine Intergalactic Technical Support. Microsoft, what planet do you want to go to today?"
    • by m4dm4n ( 888871 ) <> on Monday November 28, 2005 @10:36AM (#14128593) Homepage
      "the probability of a contaminated SETI signal is difficult to estimate;"

      Is that because his PC couldn't deal with numbers that small?

    • Re:Chicken and Egg. (Score:5, Informative)

      by djmurdoch ( 306849 ) on Monday November 28, 2005 @10:38AM (#14128610)
      The possibility that extraterrestrials will take over SETI is pretty remote, but SETI is still a security risk. In decreasing level of probability, I'd say the risks are:

        - someone could hack the server and send out malicious code with the next software update

        - someone could hack the data stream and inject malicious data into it (assuming there really is such a thing as malicious data, which I find hard to believe).

        - someone terrestrial could broadcast malicious data in such a way that the SETI telescopes pick it up and think that it's ET in origin.

        - an ET could broadcast malicious data, after having picked up a copy of the SETI software and analyzing it.

        - an ET could broadcast malicious data without knowing what the receiver is like (the worry describe in TFA).
      • Re:Chicken and Egg. (Score:3, Informative)

        by meringuoid ( 568297 )
        The possibility that extraterrestrials will take over SETI is pretty remote, but SETI is still a security risk.

        I doubt there's a risk of ET hacking SETI@home and pwning the internet; they'd be working completely blind. The risk from alien signals is one that I think was raised by someone in Contact: what if they hack us?

        Send down a message, prime number sequences and so forth, describe the periodic table, build a scientific vocabulary, the whole SETI thing. Then begin describing plans for a machine. Mak

        • Re:Chicken and Egg. (Score:5, Interesting)

          by Wellspring ( 111524 ) on Monday November 28, 2005 @02:11PM (#14130639)
          Didn't L. Bob Rife use SETI to capture the metavirus, which was metaphorically floating around in space?

          Eliminating rivals in space sounds like a flimsy motive-- though of course you're right to examine it as aliens need not have motives that are by our standards rational.

          I don't think that outright trickery is likely, but what about this:

          1. Assume FTL transportation.
          2. Assume that said FTL tech requires a transmitter and receiver. Not necessarily teleportation, merely some kind of equipment required at both the origin and destination.
          3. Assume some motive for interstellar trade (materials, information, art, some reasons that aliens would have something you want).
          4. Therefore, there's a motive for the Hong Kong effect: simply being the nexus of trade provides a massive economic benefit.
          5. At first you can grow your market yourself-- ie building and shipping the infrastructure using STL tech, then using it to establish FTL trade. This is the equivalent of shipping AOL disks to random addresses, hoping that whoever gets the disk is able to add enough revenue to be worth all the disks that were dumped.
          6. That's expensive. And it only works on an acceptable time frame in a local area. If you're trading art or information, furthermore, you need to determine if a system is worth bridging to in the first place.
          7. However, once you're up and running, there's an easier alternative. Broadcast blueprints for your network all over space, designed to obfuscate the underlying technology and only connect to your FTL net. By the time the aliens are sophisticated enough to create a competitor to your network, they will be too deeply bought in to want to do that. Plus, any network they establish will be far smaller than yours-- you can use exclusivity to lock your customer civilizations in.
          8. If you set the system up in a star topology, everything has to go through your civilization to get anywhere else. You'll have the advantage in relationships, cultural knowledge, etc. If the variability of alien psychologies is high enough, this alone could be a massive advantage. By seeing so many cultures, you get an idea of how to pigeonhole new ones and get a relationship going faster.
          9. Now you have a much more lucrative system. You have a network whose nodes are paid for by the endpoint civilizations using their industrial resources and so your only bottleneck is the range of your transmissions (so why not purchase repeaters at the edge of your network), and the ability for alien cultures to receive, digest and implement your blueprints.
          10. If viable trading partner civilizations are rare enough, far enough apart, and hard enough to discover, this could be the only workable way to implement interstellar trade.

          OK so there's one scenario right off the bat. You don't have to assume malevolent aliens, only self-interested ones. Sure, FTL might not exist at all, or may work completely differently. Who cares? When I get a random email with detailed instructions for me to make BIG PROFITS, I don't piece together how exactly it might be scamming me, I just recognize that I have to treat these things with healthy scepticism.

          Much as I respect Carl Sagan, his aliens were a little too idealized for my tastes. Then again, I also don't see our system of describing mathematics as a universal. To paraphrase B5 creator JMS: the only universals in the universe are matter, energy and enlightened self-interest.

          The age when we say that any advanced civilization must be peaceful, noble and altruistic is thankfully over. Instead, if/when we encounter aliens, let's be reasonable, respectful, and aware that our self interests may not perfectly aligned.
    • by a_nonamiss ( 743253 ) on Monday November 28, 2005 @10:40AM (#14128633)
      You're using the mindset that these ET's are of similar intelligience to humans. We tend to do that as a species. But imagine, if you will, a civilization that is only 2000+ years more advanced that us. And realistically, and civilization advanced enough to receive our radio waves and respond is likely greater than 2000 years more advanced than us. Consider how very short 2000 years is in a universal timescale. To this advanced civilization, our advanced code is nothing more than a toddler's plaything. We can't even begin to fathom the ways in which they could potentially expolit our security.

      It's like if the Romans built a huge wall and said "That will keep out anyone. It's not possible to breach it." Using our technology, which is 2000 years more advanced, (less, actually) we could fly an B2 bomber over the city and drop a couple 2000 pound bombs. The pinnalce of their most advanced security would last less than 10 seconds against the most basic of our assaults.

      I know this is a little different when talking about computer security, but just as the Romans couldn't even imagine in their wildest dreams a B2 bomber, let alone how it could possible get past their impenetrable wall, we can't conceive of the technology that could be used to "infect" our computers. In 2000 years, who knows what kind of power we would have to defeat such a system? We can't know because it's beyond even our wildest imagination.
      • by Ihlosi ( 895663 ) on Monday November 28, 2005 @10:49AM (#14128722)
        we can't conceive of the technology that could be used to "infect" our computers.

        And that's the flaw in your B2-Bomber-argument. The aliens would be stuck with using our (extremely primitive) technology. We know pretty well how our computers work, and can figure out most ways to break/hack/crack them ourselves in a short timespan.

        It's a bit like using the tools and technologies the Romans had at that time and trying build that B2 bomber.

      • but just as the Romans couldn't even imagine in their wildest dreams a B2 bomber

        Of course, it would have to be a B2 instead of a B1 or any other type of bomber so that it won't be detected by the Romans RADAR. ;-)
      • by FalconZero ( 607567 ) * <> on Monday November 28, 2005 @10:57AM (#14128778)
        Good post, but incorrect. It doesn't matter if the civilisation is a million years more advanced than our, for them to deliberatly write a virus using the SETI recieve buffer as a vector is simply impossible. The systems are ours, any infection via this method MUST comply with out systems operating parameters (IE Instruction sets etc...). The code MUST execute on our systems, for which it MUST contain vaild opcodes. Even then, it relies on security flaws in OUR software (which may or may not exist).

        To use your analogy, its like assaulting a Roman wall in a place where the laws of physics prevent flight.
      • In which case why do we even care? We cannot predict how they would attack us, and more likely than not they can simply send a bunch of .999c DU rods at our planet if they wanted to get rid of us. They could have already replaced out politicians with fakes under their control, so how paranoid do you want to be? What measures to you take to counter threats you cannot even imagine, if they exist? Anything you do will probably be worthless, anyway:

        Assuming FTL travel means they're already here so none of this
        • Re:Chicken and Egg. (Score:3, Interesting)

          by a_nonamiss ( 743253 )
          Very nice rebuttal. I was unclear in my original post. I wasn't really trying to defend this idiot that wants to shut off SETI. I guess I was merely trying to point out that if they want to get past our defenses and they are sufficiently advanced, they will do it no matter how hard we try to prevent it, probably using a vector that hasn't even occurred to us. SETI isn't really a security risk, because the only way to have true securtity from these "bad aliens" is to remain invisible to them, and we're curre
      • by 6*7 ( 193752 ) on Monday November 28, 2005 @11:05AM (#14128866)
        "It's like if the Romans built a huge wall and said "That will keep out anyone. It's not possible to breach it." Using our technology, which is 2000 years more advanced, (less, actually) we could fly an B2 bomber over the city and drop a couple 2000 pound bombs."

        IIRC the Great Wall's effects expires with the discovery of metallurgy.
      • According to quantum physics and nanotechnology, in 2000 years it may be possible to create a bunch of nanomachines that modify the state of matter, and therefore turn any protective measure (like a wall) into thin air (for example).

        Or it could be that teleportation actually is possible, so as that an extraterrestrial commando team materializes right into the president's bathroom while he is taking a leak.

        There is not much that one can do, really, if one side is so advanced over the other.
      • Yes and our worrying about SETI security is akin to Romans wondering how we might exploit a weakness in the Caesar Cipher to invade them. If we have B2 Bombers and bad intentions, then surely we don't need to exploit any of their systems to inflict damage. A sufficiently advanced alien race, intent on destroying us, is not going to give up because we shut down SETI. Why would they want to use such a primitive technology as their means of attack to begin with?
    • by beh ( 4759 ) * on Monday November 28, 2005 @10:47AM (#14128703)

      Since mankind came about through "Intelligent Design", so will the aliens. And hence it's natural that their Intelligent Design also led them to having Windows (completely independently developed - but still the same thing - it's in our eternally unchangeable intelligently designed genes, remember?)


      Somehow I wouldn't be quite so surprised if it really turned out the guy would be a creationist... ;-)

    • I'm not a software engineer but... no, wait, I AM a software engineer,

      Many physicists seem to consider themselves so brilliant, they can do other people's jobs as well as their own. Fermilab is riddled with examples, from decripit buildings they designed on their own, to gigabytes worth of python code operating mission-critical analysis.

      This guy appears to be one of of those types. Because he's employed at a fancy pants government research center, he gets airtime for things he has no business talking about.
    • by tomhudson ( 43916 )

      It's worse than that - its some stupid nuge who is trying to create a name for themselves by pointing out "potential risks."

      We've seen this behaviour before with the whole y2k problem, people using it as an avenue for self-promotion. There were some risks, but they were being addressed; at the same time, people were going ape-shit. Supposedly, planes would fall out of the sky, elevators, water systems, and electrical plants would all stop, etc, and we were told that no amount of work would find enough of

  • That really, really, really doesn't seem like an item that should even register on the worry list.

    Aliens surmise that radio signals can be intercepted and decoded by individuals light years away and then go to the trouble of sending a signal encoded with a virus of some sort? Someone needs to get out more often, methinks.

  • by beh ( 4759 ) * on Monday November 28, 2005 @10:29AM (#14128512)
    ...completely out of his mind?

    Granted - once we had contact any alien civilisation could also get into a situation where they could potentially send malware to Earth.

    But - isn't Seti right now looking at data from stars a good number of lightyears away? How likely is it that aliens on the off chance of infecting a computer would send out virusses and/or worms that would run on current CPUs and chipsets, using security holes that are current NOW? (Remember - if aliens 10 lightyears away would get hold of enough Earth signals to decode Intel assembly language and to understand Windows security holes, even if they could decipher all that overnight and write a terminal computer virus in another hour - it still took them 10 years to receive the signals from us and it would take another 10 years for them to come back). How likely is it that a virus working on 20 year old hard-/software (including OS and everything) would still work on a large portion of critical infrastructure today?

    Given that Seti only checks data, but doesn't try to execute it, shields us even further from the whole thing...

    Or - is Mr. Carrigan now assuming that there is an imminent threat of an attack by Bin Laden against the Internet - through Seti@home ?
    Now that would make even Bush sound perfectly sane... ;-)

    • ...completely out of his mind?

      Yes, he's clearly a nutjob. If SETI signals contain anything it'll be adverts for penis enlargement.

    • Oh come on, it's easy to do [], we just better hope the aliens dont have any telephone repairmen.
    • "Given that Seti only checks data, but doesn't try to execute it, shields us even further from the whole thing..."
      Correct. Substitute SETI for fax (or television) and you can see how ridiculous this is. The data is analysed for patterns, just as a fax machine converts the dots into an image. Are aliens sending faxes or TV shows? Is there a chance of getting a virus from a fax? No.
    • by Dareth ( 47614 )
      What we should be worried about is the interstellar equivalent of flashing road sign saying,
      "Eat at Earth".

      And even if they do not want to eat us, who says we won't want to eat them. If Broccoli based aliens land on Earth, I will become a mass serial killer running around with a jar of cheese whiz!

    • ...completely out of his mind?

      He's a physicist. If you thought the socially inept uber nerd was a dying or dead species, they aren't. Far from it really. Walk around Fermilab's cafeteria at lunch and you can witness some absolutely stunning samples. Even worse are the ones who carry these traits, and think they're far more intelligent than they are. The arrogance these guys can carry is indescribable.

      Yes I'm generalizing, but it's hard not to. For every well adjusted, friendly physicist there's at least one
      • For every well adjusted, friendly physicist there's at least one other who thinks himself a living diety.

        Steady on, Cowboy! The ratio is no where near that high. I'm a Theoretical Physics Ph.D. student, and in all my time I can honestly say I've only met about three people who thought they were God's Gift to the Lagrangian. I've never come across a Rodney McKay.

    • It's just you ;) (Score:4, Insightful)

      by headkase ( 533448 ) on Monday November 28, 2005 @10:49AM (#14128717)
      I belive he's talking about those pesky abstractions we all use without a thought everyday. Basically, the scenario unfolds in this way: you recieve information from a entity and the ideas contained within said information can be helpful (like Universal Cure) to harmful or disruptive (something along the lines of a memetic virus).
      It would be a nasty trick for an alien civilization to give us the most destructive weapon possible without giving us accompaning social skill's as well. Or we could figuratively be on the 'beads' end in some initial contact scenario.
      To quote Morris Berman, "An idea is something you have, an ideology is something that has you.". An old alien civilization out there could just be very good at constructing ideologies. I'm not saying now is the time to consider this chance, rather that it should be considered when alien contact occurs.
      • by Ihlosi ( 895663 )
        It would be a nasty trick for an alien civilization to give us the most destructive weapon possible without giving us accompaning social skill's as well.

        Don't worry, humanity absolutely does not need any help from alien civilizations for this scenario. "Inventing and using destructive devices (aka weapons)" is something humans are amazingly good at.

        An old alien civilization out there could just be very good at constructing ideologies.

        See above. If humanity was any better at constructing destructive i

        • ...Let's go kill them all !...

          The Universe is really, really big. Probability wise, within huge distances from us the last space-faring civilization died out 6 million years ago and the next won't occur until 4 million years after we're gone.

          We could go out and destroy all the hidden data-centre's that they left behind and we could find though. ;)
      • Or we could figuratively be on the 'beads' end in some initial contact scenario.
        Are you thinking of the "cheap glass jewelry for expensive furs" scenario that reportedly happened with the american natives? I'm not worried about it.

        Because even if that happens, it would be about information. And information would not be lost on our end if we send a copy. The whining of certain "intellectual property" organizations in similar situations nonwithstanding.
    • why all the virus activity we're seeing on the SETI networks is written for Windows 1.0 [].
    • Their software only has to succeed on one machine. From there, its learning power allows it to read internet manuals and discover how to infect more modern machines.
  • by Stevyn ( 691306 ) on Monday November 28, 2005 @10:29AM (#14128513)
    Did this guy just watch "Independence Day" or something?
    • Independence Day taught me one thing...

      PC's can be easily infected by other humans... relatively benign

      Macs can be infected by aliens!!!... extinction of the human race!

      So.. just don't run SETI on Macs (because they're compatible with every computer in the universe, including their viruses) and you will be able to keep your puny human I mean precious race..
    • "A for Andromeda" (Fred Hoyle - TV series and book) and
      (sort of) "Macroscope" (Piers Anthony - book) have this as
      plot devices.

  • by Phae ( 920315 ) on Monday November 28, 2005 @10:29AM (#14128515)
    I've seen this movie, but it's the other way around. We're the ones that upload the virus to the aliens, not them to us... don't be silly.
  • I'm really worried (Score:5, Insightful)

    by $RANDOMLUSER ( 804576 ) on Monday November 28, 2005 @10:30AM (#14128523)
    Because, of course, the aliens use binary Von Neumann machines with register/accumulator architectures, and instruction sets we're familiar with.
  • This brings up so interesting thoughts/concerns but I would have to say the risk of a virus is so close to 0 that I am going to say there is a ZERO chance of this happening. An alien race receives our signals that are 50 years out of date then have to predict 50 years in the future to send the signal back. Having 100-year technology/prediction gap, then they are so advance that they wouldn't infect our computer, they would just stomp us if they wanted to. Of course this may not be all doom and gloom; imagin
  • by WormholeFiend ( 674934 ) on Monday November 28, 2005 @10:31AM (#14128538)
    As official Earth contactee for the benevolent Betelgeuse civilization, I have been told to warn you that the evil Andromedans are using the SETI program to keep a fresh list of potential abductees for nefarious experiments.

    They also recently developped antitinfoil penetration technology, so those of you who are using this means of protection are now vulnerable.

    These beings will stop at nothing to get to the bottom of your colon!

    Consider yourselves warned.
  • WHOA.... (Score:4, Funny)

    by wangotango ( 711037 ) on Monday November 28, 2005 @10:31AM (#14128540)
    I'll read the content of the article after I construct a tin foil hat for my laptop.
  • Wouldn't the Vogon Constructor Fleet be a bigger problem than a few radio waves?

    Has anyone been 'round to the local galactic administrative office lately? Anyone?

  • by Daniel Dvorkin ( 106857 ) * on Monday November 28, 2005 @10:32AM (#14128556) Homepage Journal
    ... of someone who's very knowledgeable in one technical field (in this case, particle physics) assuming that this knowledge carries over into another, almost unrelated technical field (in this case, computer science.) I'm sure that Dr. Carrigan is a very, very smart guy, but odds are he uses his computer as a tool without a whole lot more understanding of its inner workings than that possessed by the typical business user.
  • Does this give new meaning to the phrase: HACK THE PLANET ???

  • This is about as likely as that guy hacking the mothership main computer in the movie "Independence Day".

    Gee isn't it lucky that a totally alien civilisation also happened to independently invent a Von-Neumann architecture running an 80x86 instruction set also with buffer-overflow vulnerabilities.

    I wonder if they run Windows XP?

    • I wonder if they run Windows XP?

      No, their civilization, having the benefit of being at least a few decades of technological advances ahead of us, are now using Vista RC 1.
  • I'm sure this guy can't be serious. Its probably just a funny joke started over coffee on a slack day at Fermilab, and they thought it was so hilarious they couldn't wait until April 1 to release it. Can anyone at Fermilab hear giggling?

    Its equivalent to rooting a system by holding a particular pattern in front of a web cam, causing a buffer overflow in the Jpeg compression....

  • by ettlz ( 639203 ) on Monday November 28, 2005 @10:34AM (#14128575) Journal

    That'll help prevent interstellar buffer overruns 'sploits!

    Either that or we'll send them Theo de Raadt.

  • by Vo0k ( 760020 ) on Monday November 28, 2005 @10:35AM (#14128576) Journal
    The "malicious signal" may be of earth origin, just send it to the antennas on the right frequency and make it similar enough in shape to the space noise and it will get processed just the same. Or hijack a DNS and post new "work units" with malicious content acting as SETI.
    Thing is you don't need to separate the data, you just need to make the processing software secure, in such a way that data is analysed and never executed, there's no chance of buffer overflow or other potential risks coming from the data. Simple as that.
  • by pete-classic ( 75983 ) <> on Monday November 28, 2005 @10:36AM (#14128585) Homepage Journal
    Dear Richard Carrigan,

    You keep doing particle Physics, and we'll keep doing Computer Science.

    The Computer Scientists
  • A slightly different concern I have heard expressed in relation to efforts to contact ET relate to the possibility that some unfriendly species will see our signal, take a look at our planet, and decide to enslave us. I know that respected professors at the University of Reading's Cybernetics department, whose names escape me, have expressed such concerns.

    Since SETI and other similar programmes are based on the not unreasonable belief that other technologically advanced civilizations exist on distant plane
    • I suspect that since our species has been blasting out so much noise (radio, TV broadcast, radar) in the past 50 years or so that our presence can hardly be overlooked. That is, if anybody is looking.
    • Of course, we already HAVE been alerting them from Marconi onwards, as every episode of "I Love Lucy", "Star Trek", "Baywatch" and various reality TV programs has been streaming outwards at the speed of light, not to mention all the porn, Howard Stern, government communications, etc., etc., etc....

      Cat's already out of the bag.

      Of course, they may see all of that, and decide it's best to stay away or just send a small, asteroid sized rock in our direction to shut off the noise....
  • Movie-plot threat (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Proaxiom ( 544639 ) on Monday November 28, 2005 @10:39AM (#14128619)
    A perfect example of what Schneier calls movie-plot security [].

    It's pretty sad that they're actually wasting brain cycles thinking about threats like this. No, the risk of infection isn't zero. But it's damn close to zero. It isn't zero if you 'secure' SETI systems, either. It isn't even zero if you dismantle the SETI telescopes.

    But money spent on this is money better spent elsewhere, practically no matter where else you spend it. This should have been in the 'It's Funny, Laugh' topic.

    (Prediction: this will appear on Schneier's blog by end of day tomorrow)

    • Indeed.
      And if one felt the need to continue the movie-plot security hypothesizing, one would further recognize that such a sufficiently-advanced civilization, if we're assuming such hostility, poses threats in other contexts that are multiple orders of magnitude more likely:
      - We've been broadcasting our location clearly to the universe since Marconi first threw the switch, if not earlier.
      - Any sufficiently hostile, technologically capable civilization could wipe us out with a large, well-aimed ROCK.
      - If the
    • Re:Movie-plot threat (Score:5, Interesting)

      by Dun Malg ( 230075 ) on Monday November 28, 2005 @01:00PM (#14129995) Homepage
      A perfect example of what Schneier calls movie-plot security....But money spent on this is money better spent elsewhere, practically no matter where else you spend it

      People are weird like that. As a locksmith, I tell people almost exactly the above when they ask for a SECOND deadbolt, or for an "unpickable" lock on their cheap, hollow core masonite door. They're trying to defeat movie and TV spies, which don't exist in real life. Real life burglars throw a rock through a rear window. And in fact, real life spies aren't even going to pick the lock, but rather throw a rock through the rear window so it looks like a burglary. But no, people have delusions that there are packs of secret agent type thieves with sophisticated alarm disabling blinkenlights tools and lockpick sets. People watch too much TV.

  • After all, that's how we beat the aliens back on Independence Day a few years back, right?
  •'s that Alien computers are susceptible to MACINTOSH viruses! (See "Independence Day", for example.) For once, Windows uses are immune to an attack!
  • The real reason behind research requests for adding processes (and red tape) is budgetary. This guy wants to see more money spent!

    Don't be surprised by it. Government has terrorists to help increase their budget (war is the health of the State). Scientists have the bird flu, HIV and little green men.
  • Nut job central (Score:3, Insightful)

    by squoozer ( 730327 ) on Monday November 28, 2005 @10:43AM (#14128654)

    Has /. become a focal point for all the worlds nut jobs today or something? What with this and the guy asking to move porn onto another port all we need now is one of the monty python crew to do us a silly walk. How do these people get to take control of my pixels?

    What's most scary though is that there is a small percentage of people who will believe him. I think those people scare me more now I come to think about it. At least this guy is just trying for his 15 minutes of fame.

  • by Aging_Newbie ( 16932 ) * on Monday November 28, 2005 @10:44AM (#14128663)
    SETI data is pretty much indistinguishable from random numbers. In fact, the extremely rare patterned sequences of data are the holy grail of the pursuit.

    So .... most likely lots of virus code has already been processed because random noise will eventually produce every virus, just like monkeys and keyboards will produce Shakespeare. One could, I guess, hold the position that by processing random data we are putting ourselves at risk and that rings more true than some civilization producing intentional sequences with malicious intent.
  • Okay, in order for infectious code to even contaminate our systems we're begging the question that aliens know the language our systems are communicating in. The odds that aliens are within earshot is one thing to overcome. Add to that: the odds that they're intelligent, odds that they have technology to code with, odds that they have been watching us long enough to reverse engineer our code in order to contaminate our systems, the odds that our systems would interpret this code. But hey, it got him some pr
  • Oh but of course! (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Billosaur ( 927319 ) * <> on Monday November 28, 2005 @10:44AM (#14128672) Journal
    The concern is raised in the next issue of the journal Acta Astronautica by Richard Carrigan, a particle physicist at the US Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Illinois.

    And he is after all, one of the most reputable names in the computing field today.

    Computer scientists argue that to hack a computer, or write a virus that will infect it, requires a knowledge of how the computer and the software it is running work: a computer on Earth is going to be as alien to the aliens as they would be to us. But Dr Carrigan says there is still a risk.

    There most certainly is a risk: a risk that someone in the government might actually take a particle physicist's word that aliens are trying to hack the Internet (which, given the speed of light, most enlightened civilizations in the galaxy won't find out about for about 200 years, assuming they are listening in the first place).

    On the one hand, I don't know why this is a story. This guy is out of his element, and no one should be taking him too seriously (Independence Day [] buffs notwithstanding). On the other hand, the chance that people in positions of power with less than two neurons to rub together might take this guy seriously, thereby jeopardizing peaceful scientific research (see Contact []) has me just a bit concerned.

  • by stox ( 131684 ) on Monday November 28, 2005 @10:45AM (#14128678) Homepage
    is sending signals out. Although we may think we are saying hello, the receiver may be thinking, "Hmmm, I do need more meat in my diet."
  • take over with such a signal.

    While I believe such a scenario is entirely possible, I think that our Pentium 4's and Sparc's are just not capable of enabling such a feat. The code to do so would either take several megabytes or be so strongly compressed that our machines simply would no be able to unpack it in under a decade.

    It would sort of be like the NSA travelling back in time and trying to remotely root the Union Pacific's telegraph machines.
  • by nweaver ( 113078 ) on Monday November 28, 2005 @10:48AM (#14128714) Homepage
    Sounds like such bad Sci-Fi that he could become a writer for Threshold.
  • ...But maybe that's just me.
  • A supervirus from outerspace.... Wow this guy probably saw this [] movie...
  • Snow Crash? (Score:4, Funny)

    by giminy ( 94188 ) on Monday November 28, 2005 @10:53AM (#14128751) Homepage Journal
    Did anyone else immediately think of Snow Crash when they read this? I'm guessing Neal Stephenson did a lot of acid when he wrote that novel. I'm guessing that this guy did a lot more acid than Neal if he believes there is any truth to it.
  • This is basically the risk of the Blight from Vernor Vinge's "A Fire Upon The Deep". The idea is that even if you can't imagine how such a virus could be written, alien AIs sophisticated beyond our imagination might be able to.
  • And he's watched too many epic science fiction films with bad science and dopey fiction. Nothing to see here. Move along.
  • We now know from our own history that the time in which a civilization broadcasts analog radio signals at high power is a very narrow window.

    The power of individual radio signals has declined precipitously in the last 50 years, as more and more stakeholders have made use of the radio spectrum--the power and band spread of individual signals has decreased. This trend will only increase as the sophistication of encoding, filters, frequency hopping, and spread-spectrum useage increases. Also, as the speed and
  • by $RANDOMLUSER ( 804576 ) on Monday November 28, 2005 @10:56AM (#14128775)
    I send you greetings from what you know as the smaller magelenic cloud. my name is ortion fleglar, and my father, the late ortion flekgar, left to me a sum of one hundred million kletlons before being pulled into a hyperspace anomoly. Before his untimely demise, he warned me never to trust my hive-mothers, gleblon flamkis and formta gleklar...
  • Sounds to me like mr. Carrigan just finished reading Macroscope [].
  • ...tempting offers to enlarge their gnorgls, pictures of young teens foithboindering, and sincere offers from Dr. Blfpsplk who wants to smuggle thirty million credits out of the country and will happily give 10% of it to any reliable person who will lend him the use of their bank account... ...I'll start worrying.

    Because then they will get OUR viruses, and reverse-engineer them.
  • You know we are just going to get annoying pop-ups with little blue naked women on our screen saying "Buy cyalis now or suffer our death rays!"

    Come on this guy's a wacko. First they need to decode our language, then they can start decoding our software. Good grief! It's like the notion aliens out there are going to have a face, eyes, hands, legs and wow look remarkably humanoid.
  • Can I be the first to please request the revocation of Mr. Carrigan's "junior physicist" badge and secret decoder ring?

    I for one hope this is all just a left-over April fools joke or something. It's far too scary to me to believe that someone who would actually publish such nonsense -- and mean it -- could manage to get hired by Fermilab.
  • Who cares? (Score:4, Funny)

    by Tom ( 822 ) on Monday November 28, 2005 @11:07AM (#14128895) Homepage Journal
    Frankly, anyone who is 2-3 years ahead of today could lay waste to our entire IT infrastructure anyway. Just look at what some malware can do that's a month or so ahead of current patchlevels.

    Any aliens that are 10, 100 or 1000 years ahead of us technologically... well, the 10-year-ahead aliens probably know how to wipe out every computer on earth within 2 minutes. The 100 and 1000 years-ahead aliens almost certainly aren't backwards compatible enough. :)
  • His paranoid delusions are just that, delusions. Do not worry, continue your research as you have fellow humans and ignore the warming trend on your^H^H^H^H our planet
  • by rdmiller3 ( 29465 ) on Monday November 28, 2005 @11:10AM (#14128928) Journal
    From his web site:
    But remember, ordinary unmotivated computer and biological viruses are very common!

    This common misconception shows that although Richard Carrigan may be a fine particle physicist, he doesn't really know much about computer viruses. Please, folks... If you're going to cite someone as an "expert", make sure they've at least got a clue about the topic in question.

    To properly debunk this person's fearmongering though, let's remember a little program called "crashme":

    1. Generate a file full of random bits.
    2. Try to execute that file.
    3. Repeat from the beginning.
    It was a great way to find flaws in the robustness of user space verses system space, back when Linux was young. (A user program should never be able to crash the whole system.) There are two amazing things about this program:
    1. It tries to execute a data file!
    2. It hasn't produced a single virus yet!

    A distant civilization will have no knowledge of our computer systems' machine language and it would be impossible for them to guess. There are so many ways we could have arranged such things. Any information coming from them would essentially be random data as far as computer instructions go, even if it contained enough patterns to show that it came from a sentient source.

    Nobody executes raw data! Even SETI wouldn't execute their data. They'd analyze it, plot it, and try to decipher it but they're not going to name it "ALIEN.EXE" and try to run it like a program. But what if they did?

    Well, this "crashme" program has been doing just that, for more than a decate and on many machines. No viruses yet.

    This "SETI virus" scare is just a plot device for a low budget movie. It's a shame that it even made it onto slashdot.

  • by SB9876 ( 723368 ) on Monday November 28, 2005 @11:18AM (#14129014)


  • Wow, just wow. (Score:3, Insightful)

    by andreyw ( 798182 ) on Monday November 28, 2005 @12:07PM (#14129485) Homepage
    The author of TFA clearly neither has a clue about SETI, nor about computers.

    Malicious signal carrying malicious data? The best SETI can hope to "detect" is a short burst of CW, a narrowband signal. That's like detecting someone talking but not actually hearing any of the talking.

    Never minding the whole "aliens hacking our boxen without knowing how they work". I bet this dude takes ``Independence Day'' as a plausible scenario too. What a tool.
  • by bradbury ( 33372 ) <> on Monday November 28, 2005 @12:38PM (#14129766) Homepage
    As suggested in this paper "Galactic Gradients, Postbiological Evolution and the Apparent Failure of SETI []" there are unlikely to be any really advanced civilizations in our galactic vicinity. As pointed out in Ray Kurzweil's recent The Singularity is Near [] civilizations advance very rapidly (within decades) from our current state to an extremely advanced state we only barely envision. One doesn't communicate (by radio -- or perhaps at all[!]) across interstellar distances because the bandwidth is too low for the information content and thought capacity of advanced civilizations. So the probabilities are that most, if not all, civilizations which are capable of listening to us are thousands of light years away and they have no reason to infect us because it serves no useful purpose. (One would presume that "script kiddies" don't exist in advanced civilizations.)

    It is a highly anthropomorphic point of view that traditional space colonization or info-colonization are the paths that will be taken by advanced civilizations. These are concepts based on the relatively limited perspective of a few thousand years of human civilization and even shorter periods of infotech environments. It seems (to me) much more likely that advanced civilizations will replicate through a process similar to the self-replication process one sees in single cells (e.g. bacteria) and not the infectious parasite process one sees with viruses. The problem is that self-replication of advanced civilizations requires extremely close encounters between the developed resource (presumably a solar system, mega-ship or mega-intelligence like a Matrioshka Brain []) with a resource of similar or greater mass & energy capacity. Such a resource should be largely undeveloped (like our solar system but much more likely regions of space where new stars are being created). This allows for self-replication over sub-light-year distances. Given the high energy/mass cost of navigating entire solar systems or mega-ships/intelligences as well as the common trajectories of natural objects in our galaxy such "close encounters" are very infrequent (occuring only over millions to billions of years).

    (And for those of you who doubt navigating solar systems is feasible you need to go read related papers by Dyson or Criswell.)

  • too much Sci Fi (Score:3, Insightful)

    by idlake ( 850372 ) on Monday November 28, 2005 @12:49PM (#14129879)
    Richard Carrigan, a particle physicist at the US Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Illinois

    The notion that a SETI signal needs to be "decontaminated" is plausible only to people who watch too much Independence Day or Star Trek(where the most implausible feature, contrary to popular opinion, is not FTL travel, but the fact that all the computer systems in the galaxy seem to be more or less compatible).

    To put it bluntly: there is no way in hell that a SETI signal is going to infect anything.

    Even if it did, what would it do? Transfer thousands of dollars to Alpha Centauri? Dial galactic 1-900 numbers? Cause vacation snapshots to be transmitted via Arecibo into space? Cause Windows machines to reboot all over the nation? Kill us all by finally revealing in public Monty Python's killer joke?

    What I can't figure out is whether Carrigan is merely incredibly stupid, or whether he knows that his statements are nonsense and is opportunistic. Is he perhaps annoyed at the success of efforts like SETI and wants to create FUD? Is he trying to kill funding for other branches of physics? Or is he trying to get funding for his own pet project? My money is still on "stupid and arrogant", but I'm willing to be convinced of the other possibility.
  • by Darius Jedburgh ( 920018 ) on Monday November 28, 2005 @01:00PM (#14129998) could be a virus for he human brain. An intelligent alien species could reverse engineer the human brain and try to figure out the right 'buttons' to push to make us engage in various types of behavior. Essentially they'd have to use the fact that the human brain isn't a perfect processing machine. For example there are optical illusions which make us see things that aren't really there at all. Similarly there might be thought illusions that arise the moment we are tricked into thinking about certain things. The 'virus' might look like the most innocuous thing but if it had the right triggers embedded in it then it might make humans perform certain prescribed actions that would look completely irrational to those uninfected.

    It's hard to predict the form that such a 'virus' might take. Just making up random stuff off the top of my head: they could leave us a story about such irrelevant subjects like the history of an ancient tribe lost in some desert for 40 years but as a result of reading this story the readers' beheviour might be irrevocably changed so that they are no longer capable of understanding basic biology. You simply wouldn't be able to tell merely by skimming the subject matter as the effect would be embedded within hidden triggers. By leaving enough of these subtle 'viruses' spread out through our culture they could bring our civilization to its knees without us even realizing that we've been the victim of alien attack.

MESSAGE ACKNOWLEDGED -- The Pershing II missiles have been launched.