SETI on Snowden's alien remark: encryption isn't an issue

During a recent podcast interview with Neil deGrasse Tyson, former NSA contractor and whistleblower Edward Snowden made an off-the-cuff remark about aliens and encryption and why the latter might hinder efforts to find such beings. The gist of it was: aliens are probably using encryption, and as such we're likely to miss any messages they send due to that encryption. SETI Institute has come back with a response, and has largely dismissed the concern.

The part of Snowden's interview that managed to catch so much attention was thus:

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 their communication will be sent via the most primitive and most unprotected means.

The idea being that aliens are probably way ahead of us and have surpassed that time period, and thusly any messages they send will be encrypted and easy to mistake as random noise. SETI Institute, though, has dismissed that concern in a recent interview with Scientific American.

In fact, we don't need an intelligible message from aliens that we can decipher and understand. Rather, humans are on the lookout for a "signal that tells us that somebody has a transmitter," according to director of the Center for SETI Research Seth Shostak.

SETI is using radio telescopes to prowl space for narrow band signals — something that would indicate someone somewhere beyond our world has a transmitter. If such a signal was found, it wouldn't matter if it was encrypted. Sort of like hearing someone yell: you wouldn't have to understand what they shouted to know they're there.

SOURCE: Scientific American