SETI Corrects Edward Snowden on the Difficulties of Eavesdropping on Alien Civilizations

Thursday, 24 September 2015 - 12:58PM
Astronomy
Alien Life
Thursday, 24 September 2015 - 12:58PM
SETI Corrects Edward Snowden on the Difficulties of Eavesdropping on Alien Civilizations
Last weekend, NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden claimed that we may not have heard from alien civilizations yet because their communications are encrypted. Now, SETI researchers have attempted to set the record straight, as they claim that encryption would only be a problem in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence if humans are still looking hundreds or thousands of years from now.

In a conversation with Neil DeGrasse Tyson on the latest episode of StarTalk, Snowden asserted that there's only a small window of time in which a civilization's communications are unsecured enough to be detected from space. As a result, we may be detecting signals from other civilizations that are encrypted, and therefore are impossible to distinguish from random noise in the universe:

Opening quote
"If you have 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 of their communications will be sent via the most primitive and most unprotected means... All of their communications [would be] encrypted by default. So what we're hearing that's actually an alien television show or a phone call... is indistinguishable to us from cosmic microwave background."
Closing quote


To be fair, Snowden may be an expert on subjects like encryption, and likely wasn't even prepared for Tyson to ask him to apply the reasoning to the search for extraterrestrial life. And according to SETI researchers, Snowden is absolutely correct that there is only a small window of time in which alien signals could potentially be detected by humans. But it's not necessarily a problem if the communications are encrypted, as astrobiologists are mostly concerned with looking for the medium rather than the communications themselves:

Opening quote
"We're not looking for the message," SETI director Seth Shostak told Live Science. "We're looking for the signal that tells us that somebody has a transmitter."
Closing quote


Shostak claimed that even if the message is encrypted, signals from an alien civilization with actual transmitters would still be distinguishable from natural bodies that emit radio signals. When using transmitters, the radio signals would be narrow-band, or focused signals, which would be distinct from general radio noise.

SETI researcher Doug Vakosh claimed that the problem is primarily distance. Any signals that leak into space from alien-to-alien communication would not be detectable from Earth unless it were directly intended for Earthlings.

Opening quote
"Even our radio and television signals that are streaming off into space would be undetectable by us if they were out at the nearest star system beyond Earth," Vakoch said.
Closing quote


Encryption wouldn't be a problem unless our technology were significantly more advanced, probably in hundreds or thousands of years. But even if our technology advanced to that point, there would still be a small window of time in which an alien civilization were both advanced enough to be sending radio signals but not advanced enough to streamline the process and prevent leakage into space:

Opening quote
"If another civilization wants to conceal its identity, it doesn't even have to worry about encryption," Vakoch said. "If you look at telecommunications as it is developing here on Earth, we have been noisy in the past. We had a lot of TV and radio going out into space. Now, as we shift to communication by fiber-optic or by telecommunication satellite, there is less of this leakage going off into space."
Closing quote
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