LITTLE FERRY, NJ.., 15 December 2005 -- A member of the grassroots, nonprofit SETI League has allayed fears expressed by some scientists, that malevolent signals from extraterrestrial civilizations could cripple Earth's computer networks. Responding to the so-called "SETI Hacker Hypothesis" articulated by particle physicist Richard A. Carrigan, Jr. of the Fermi National Laboratory, Canadian computer security expert Marcus Leech states "we test some of the elements of this hypothesis and find them to be unsupportable."
SETI science seeks evidence of advanced technological civilizations in space, primarily by monitoring electromagnetic emissions with optical and radio telescopes. Through the SETI@home experiment at the University of California, Berkeley, millions of personal computers worldwide have since 1999 been participating in distributed processing of data from one of those telescopes, the 305 meter dish in Arecibo, Puerto Rico. The SETI Hacker Hypothesis suggests that those computers could be at risk from malicious code deliberately sent Earthward by extraterrestrials. But in a recent paper available on The SETI League website at http://www.setileague.org/articles/hacker.pdf, Leech concludes that these fears are unfounded.
Carrigan's concerns were first voiced in a paper presented at a 2002 BioAstronomy conference, titled "The Ultimate Hacker: SETI signals may need to be decontaminated." Elements of that paper have recently resurfaced on the self-proclaimed nerd website SlashDot.org, been reported in the British newspaper The Guardian and elsewhere, and submitted to the prestigious scholarly journal Acta Astronautica. Carrigan states that "Biological contamination from space is a remote but recognized possibility. SETI signals might also contain harmful information." He argues for a decontamination process similar to that used when the first moon rocks were returned to Earth in 1969.
In response, Leech, formerly security area director for the Internet Engineering Task Force, makes the most generous assumptions possible in favor of the alleged ET hacker, and shows that such beings would be unable to trigger a buffer overflow, the known security flaw in computers most often exploited by terrestrial hackers. He allows that "while one cannot recommend a cavalier attitude with respect to software quality used by our SETI researchers, it's a near-certainty that computer viruses from outer space will not be one of the threats that need to be defended against."
"We conclude," states Leech, "with apologies to the film Independence Day, that SETI-hacker scenarios are only plausible within the fanciful confines of Hollywood, and then only when our ET hackers happen to be MacintoshTM savvy."
Largely using radio telescopes and optical telescopes, SETI scientists seek to determine whether humankind is alone in the universe. Since Congress terminated NASA's SETI funding in 1993, The SETI League and other scientific groups have privatized the research. Amateur and professional scientists interested in participating in the search for intelligent alien life, and citizens wishing to help support it, should email join_at_setileague_dot_org, check the SETI League Web site at http://www.setileague.org/, send a fax to +1 (201) 641-1771, or contact The SETI League, Inc. membership hotline at +1 (800) TAU-SETI. Be sure to provide us with a postal address to which we will mail further information. The SETI League, Inc. is a membership-supported, non-profit [501(c)(3)], educational and scientific corporation dedicated to the scientific Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence.
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this page last updated 17 December 2005
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