Saturday, November 26, 2005

Scientists, Be On Guard ... ET Might Be a Malicious Hacker

ET Hacker
Ian Sample
science correspondent

     As if spotty teenagers releasing computer viruses on to the internet from darkened rooms were not enough of a headache. According to a scientific report, planet Earth's computers are wide open to a virus attack from Little Green Men.

     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. He believes scientists searching the heavens for signals from extra-terrestrial civilisations are putting Earth's security at risk, by distributing the jumble of signals they receive to computers all over the world.

     The search for extra-terrestrial intelligence (Seti) project, based at the University of California in Berkeley, uses land-based telescopes to scour the universe for electromagnetic waves. Just as stray radio and TV broadcasts are now zooming away from Earth at the speed of light, the Seti scientists hope to pick up stray signals, or even intentional interplanetary broadcasts, emitted from other civilisations.

     All signals picked up by Seti are broken up and sent across the internet to a vast band of volunteers who have signed up for a Seti screensaver, which allows their computers to crunch away at the signals, when they are not at their desks.

     So far, the only signals detected are bursts of radiation from stars and a murmur of background noise left over from the big bang. But, says Dr Carrigan, improved telescopes and faster computers mean scientists are ever more likely to detect a signal from extra-terrestrials.

     In his report, entitled Do potential Seti signals need to be decontaminated?, he suggests the Seti scientists may be too blase about finding a signal. "In science fiction, all the aliens are bad, but in the world of science, they are all good and simply want to get in touch." His main concern is that, intentionally or otherwise, an extra-terrestrial signal picked up by the Seti team could cause widespread damage to computers if released on to the internet without being checked.

     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.

     Rather than dismiss his concerns, Dr Carrigan wants the Seti scientists to build safety features into their network to act as a quarantine so any potentially damaging signals can be trapped before they infect the internet.

* Special Thanks To Christian Macé

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