SETI Institute radio telescope

Could Earth really get cyberattacked by aliens?

Contributed by
Feb 25, 2018, 2:06 PM EST (Updated)

Hacking seems to be in the news every other day, but what if we were hacked by someone—something—that transmitted malware from another planet?


The internet is not safe from alien invasion if you ask astrophysicists Michael Hippke and Jon Learned. Seth Shostak, senior astronomer for the SETI Institute, let NBC Mach in on their recently published paper, in which they argue that a downloadable message from space may end up destroying cyberspace.

“A complex message from space may require the use of computers to display, analyze and understand, Hippke and Learned said. “Such a message cannot be decontaminated with certainty, and technical risks remain which can pose an existential threat. Complex messages would need to be destroyed in the risk averse case. “

Technological dangers have factored into the never-ending search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) since computers were around. Aliens could infiltrate our systems by hypothetically zapping us a message through a radio telescope, something suggested as early as 1959. The advancement of technology has only opened up more potential portals for them to hack us. Someone could receive an alien email that (best-case scenario) turns out to be a virus that infects the entire internet or (worst-case scenario) claims that Earthlings need to drop everything and build a swarm of nanobots that they will later invade the planet with. You probably can’t help but open something that says the sun will explode into a massive supernova if you don’t click it in 15 seconds.



The Allen Telescope Array is a SETI array that searches for extraterrestrial signals night after night. Credit: The SETI Institute

Hippke and Learned doubt that any virus shield will ever fully protect against extraterrestrial infections, but how SETI signals could even be decontaminated is something that is nearly impossible to figure out, considering we haven’t actually had any interactions with aliens yet.

Shostak is skeptical about aliens even being able to make the sun go supernova before it lurches into its death throes in another 5 billion years. He also believes that if aliens who are technologically sophisticated enough can figure out how to hack a previously unknown planet, they should have no problem mass-producing nanobots or Star Wars-esque droids or whatever else they plan to attack us with on their own.

“Imagine modern humans threatening Neanderthals with nuclear war unless they washed our cars,” argued Shostak. “Would that make any sense?” As for the fear of uploading a computer virus into our software, he assured us, “That’s about as realistic as sabotaging your neighbor’s new laptop by feeding it programs written for the Commodore 64.

If aliens really want to hack us, they need to design a virus targeted to a specific program, like the Stuxnet virus that launched cyber warfare on Iran. Stuxnet was only designed to eat its way through the Windows operating system. Even if a sophisticated race of extraterrestrials designs a virus that could send their own planet into technological armageddon, the chance that the code would compute here is almost zero.

Shostak also believes an alien cyberattack is highly unrealistic when you take the vastness of the cosmos into account. Anything living 40 light-years away will have no clue what operating system to target if they even are able to find out we have personal computers. Go beyond 80 light-years away and there is virtually no way the denizens of some planet over there could find out we even have computers.


For now, it seems the worst cyber-threat we face is all too human.


(via NBC Mach)

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