SETI Hacker?    updated December 11, 2007  D. Carrigan (subject line must be sensible)

(My SETI interest is not funded by Fermilab or the U. S. Department of Energy. This portion of the site is needed to illustrate other interconnections related to Fermilab.)
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References, biocontamination, computer virus

An ETI computer virus

Prophylactic measures


Expert criticisms of this virus picture

Actions to protect against SETI Hacker

Dangerous ETI signal


Acta Astronautica draft, SETI Hacker Bremen article
Bioastronomy 2002 article, Russian translation-A. Turchin
Bremen Power Point (700 kB)


  • Biological contamination from space samples is a remote but accepted possibility.
  • Possible biological contamination led to the establishment of a protocol for decontaminating material returning from space
  • The International Committee on Space Research (COSPAR) has developed a protocol through international space bodies and the United Nations
"Computer" virus contamination of a SETI signal?
  • SETI signals might also contain a harmful "SETI Hacker" message similar to a computer virus.

With an unsuspecting receiver an electromagnetic wave can move  "alien" signal across cosmos at light speed.

Is a SETI virus conjecture just science fiction?

Comments received from Leslie Sage, Senior Editor of Nature, on submission of an article about SETI Hacker “While the subject does cross interdisciplinary lines this is not the main criterion we use for selection. Rather, papers should report deep new physical insights, … We have been unable to identify such aspects in the paper. The general premise of the manuscript even lacks some conceptual novelty, as it has already been explored in the book 3001, the Final Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke.”
Some science fiction works on the SETI virus possibility include include The Siren Stars, D. Carrigan and N. Carrigan (originally serialized in the magazine Analog in 1970) and A for Andromeda, F. Hoyle and J. Elliot, Souvenir Press (1962).  

An ETI computer virus

  • Raw signal in memory must bootstrap to status of operating program (can test this as a possibility)
  • 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?)
  • Then learn how to translate unpacking program into local computer language  top

More expert criticism of ETI virus possibility

Expert criticisms of this virus picture:

  • Viruses use known features of system to find a portal
  • Idiosyncratic language is an unbreakable firewall
  • Download process seriously scrambles the signal content. ETI code too complicated and not earth-adapted
More on expert criticism

But remember, ordinary unmotivated computer and biological viruses are very common!   top

Dangerous ETI signal

ETI sphere

Prophylactic measures

  • Keep downloaded SETI signals on machines isolated from analysis
  • Fragment SETI signals into small packets and keep apart
  • Quarantine on isolated computers and watch for aberrant behavior
  • Check sums and program integrity checks
  • Could SETI translation use one-time ciphers for operating codes?
  • Beacons can be handled without as much care as messages   top

Actions to protect against SETI Hacker

  • Revise item 6 of the present SETI signal detection protocol so data is more tightly controlled
  • Rethink widely dispersed data of SETI@home
  • Prepare to act promptly if a signal is found
  • Convene a COSPAR type workshop of experts in SETI, computer security, cryptography, biological contamination, and archaeology

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.

An intelligent system fifty light years away detecting earth’s first radio signals could have broadcast a return signal that would now be reaching earth. There are about 400 stars within this fifty light year sphere. Tarter notes TV transmitters on earth can be detected one light year away with contemporary technology. top