Today’s Top Space Headline –“Could an Alien Civilization Hack Planet Earth?”

 

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With all the news stories these days about computer hacking, it probably comes as no surprise that someone is worried about hackers from outer space. Yes, there are now scientists who fret that space aliens might send messages that worm their way into human society — not to steal our passwords but to bring down our culture.


How exactly would they do that, asks SETI astronomer Seth Shostak in today's NBC MACH. Astrophysicists Michael Hippke and John Learned argue in a recent paper that our telescopes might pick up hazardous messages sent our way — a virus that shuts down our computers, for example, or something a bit like cosmic blackmail: “Do this for us, or we’ll make your sun go supernova and destroy Earth.” Or perhaps the cosmic hackers could trick us into building self-replicating nanobots, and then arrange for them to be let loose to chew up our planet or its inhabitants.

 

Mind you, making a small star like the sun go supernova would be a mind-boggling trick — one that would impress astrophysicists (if any were left). As for the nanobots, I figure the aliens need only wait a century or two, and we’ll make the little devils ourselves, without any help.

It’s indisputable that space aliens, if they do exist, might not be friendly. But it’s hard to think of things that we could do for agile, technically sophisticated aliens that they couldn’t accomplish more easily on their own. Imagine modern humans threatening Neanderthals with nuclear war unless they washed our cars. Would that make any sense?

The astrophysicists also suggest that the extraterrestrials could show their displeasure (what did we do?) by launching a cyberattack. Maybe you’ve seen the 1996 film “Independence Day,” in which odious aliens are vanquished by a computer virus uploaded into their machinery. That’s about as realistic as sabotaging your neighbor’s new laptop by feeding it programs written for the Commodore 64.

In other words, aliens that could muster the transmitter power (not to mention the budget) to try wiping us out with code are going to have a real compatibility problem. The Stuxnet virus that took out Iran’s enrichment centrifuges was designed to target a contemporary bit of software: the Windows operating system.

If these nasty aliens are more than 40 light-years away, they won’t know that we have personal computers, let alone which operating system they should target. If they’re more than 80 light-years away, they won’t know that we have computers of any kind.

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