On Friday, whistleblower Edward Snowden came on astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson’s podcast StarTalk. (Snowden video-chatted from Moscow to record the show.) Snowden and Tyson are prominent in different fields, but they found common ground talking about the importance of experimentation and questioning established ideas. “I think there’s a real distinction between schooling and learning,” Snowden said.
You just knew, though, that between the two of them, something weird was going to come up. And it did! The Guardian noticed that about halfway through the conversation, the two started talking about how radio broadcasts can be picked up by anyone with an antenna. And then Tyson floated the idea that that could include aliens. “This is actually I think an interesting factor,” Snowden said. And then it just kind of went from there:
When you look at encrypted communications, if they are properly encrypted, there is no real way to tell that they are encrypted. You can’t distinguish a properly encrypted communication, at least in the theoretical sense, from random noise.
So 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 of their communication will be sent via the most primitive and most unprotected means.
So when we think about everything that we’re hearing through our satellites, or everything they’re hearing from our civilization, if there are indeed aliens out there, all of their communications are 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 radiation.
It’s an interesting idea that an alien society might evolve the same notions of privacy and security that humans have been debating and developing for thousands of years. But there are a lot of big “ifs” before we meet the Snowden of another galaxy. Tyson and Snowden were both clearly enjoying the conversation enough to just roll with it. “In case you haven’t noticed, I’m a little bit of a nerd,” Snowden said, laughing.