We wouldn’t be able to decrypt SETI messages from aliens, says Edward Snowden

Whistleblower Edward Snowden appeared last week on the StarTalk podcast hosted by astrophysicist and superstar science communicator Neil DeGrasse Tyson. Snowden, via robotic telepresence from Moscow, discussed a lot of interesting issues with Tyson, including not only data compression, encryption, and privacy, but also science, epistemology, and the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI).

The top picture shows Tyson discussing with Snowden, who is using a Beam telepresence robot. Developed by Suitable Technologies, Beam robots allow a remote operator to drive a wheeled robot with a display unit for the operator’s head video feed, and interact with on-site participants in realtime. Snowden visited Tyson’s office at the Hayden Planetarium in New York via the robot, controlling the robot from Moscow, where he was granted asylum after Washington charged him with theft and espionage. The futuristic settings of the talk may be what prompted Tyson and Snowden to discuss SETI.

“If you have an an alien civilization trying to listen for other civilizations, or our civilization trying to listen for aliens, there’s only one small period in the development of their society when all their communication will be sent via the most primitive and most unprotected means,” Snowden said.

In fact, most SETI projects look for radio waves sent from aliens. Radio is a relatively recent technology, and perhaps a short lived one, at least for interstellar communications. “From a scientific standpoint, we have to ask the question: If they’re hundreds of millions of years more advanced, would they even still use radio technology, or electromagnetic radiation?” said Berkeley SETI director Andrew Siemion, and the question makes a lot of sense.

Communications Between Advanced Alien Civilizations Would be Encrypted by Default

Radio telescopesBesides the possible use of communication means more advanced than radio, Snowden thinks that alien communications would be encrypted.

“So when we think about everything that we’re hearing through our satellites or everything that they’re hearing from our civilization (if there are indeed aliens out there), all of their communications are encrypted by default,” said Snowden, and added that encryption would render interstellar communications indistinguishable to us from the cosmic microwave background radiation.

“If you look at encrypted communication, if they are properly encrypted, there is no real way to tell that they are encrypted,” said Snowden.

You can’t distinguish a properly encrypted communication from random behavior.

Some science writers dismissed Snowden’s remarks, with a predictably smug attitude that is perfectly expressed by the title of a Gizmodo article – SETI: Snowden should stick to human affairs and let us figure out how to find aliens.

A Scientific American article notes that it’s not likely Snowden has done an in-depth study of how the search for extraterrestrial intelligence has evolved, and quotes Seth Shostak, director of the SETI Institute’s Center for SETI Research, who said that data encryption is beside the point.

Of course, the first messages from an advanced civilizations to a young and unsophisticated civilization like ours wouldn’t be heavily encrypted – on the contrary, they would try to send a message that can be easily decrypted. But routine messages between advanced civilizations might be encrypted with very sophisticated cryptography that we wouldn’t be able to break, which is especially likely if up there among the stars there are many advanced civilizations with conflicting interests – just like, you know, down here.

Even if communications between advanced civilizations are not purposefully encrypted, they would certainly be compressed. Data compression, like encryption, makes messages similar to noise, and the advanced near-optimal data compression techniques used by advanced ETs would make their messages indistinguishable from noise to less advanced eavesdroppers.

So, when it comes to eavesdropping on communications between advanced civilizations, it seems that Snowden has a point.

Images from Carlos Valdes-Lora and Wikimedia Commons.

Giulio Prisco is a freelance writer specialized in science, technology, business and future studies.