Snowden says aliens could be trying to get in touch right now

Technically Incorrect: In a conversation with Neil DeGrasse Tyson, the Moscow-based NSA whistleblower offers his views on interplanetary communication. He fears their communication may be encrypted, so we're missing it.

Chris Matyszczyk
3 min read

Technically Incorrect offers a slightly twisted take on the tech that's taken over our lives.

Edward Snowden worries we're not hearing aliens' messages. HBO/Screenshot by CNET

We have many assumptions about extraterrestrials.

We assume that, in some way, they'll understand how to communicate with us.

We assume they may well be more advanced than us. We assume they have spaceships and weapons that can zap us into granular matter with just a twitch of their noses.

What if it's all one big misunderstanding?

Edward Snowden, who used to be a contractor for the NSA before he became famous for leaking some of its practices, worries that we might currently be deaf to alien communication.

He expressed this view during a fascinating chat with Neil DeGrasse Tyson on his StarTalk podcast. This was courtesy of a robot-controlled video screen from his Moscow location -- a communication system that DeGrasse Tyson described as "an iPad on wheels."

It was wide-ranging chat between two nerds. Sample from Snowden: He once read a metallurgy textbook. Sexy, that.

Still, they got onto the subject of encryption and how it might affect communicating with otherworldly beings.

"If you look at encrypted communication, if they are properly encrypted, there is no real way to tell that they are encrypted," Snowden said. "You can't distinguish a properly encrypted communication from random behavior."

In essence, he believes that if aliens are smart, they'll already be encrypting everything. He said that communication remains unencrypted "until society realizes how dangerous that is." Are we there yet? Yes, we are.

The consequence for potential human-alien chats is this: "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 communications will be sent via the most primitive and most unprotected means."

If something is perfectly encrypted, you wouldn't even know it's communication, so not even a security agency would think to intercept it. It would come across as mere noise. Ergo, aliens might be trying to communicate, but their natural communication systems are completely encrypted. So we don't even notice that this is an alien writing, "Hey, what's it like being a Tampa Bay Buccanneers' fan? Isn't it totally depressing?"

Some might wonder whether this is still a touch human-centric.

We assume that other beings might have at least some of the same impulses as us, that they would want, for example, to connect, share and even have their own Instagram accounts. However, they could be beings with a completely different chemistry, a completely different sense of being, a completely different definition of the thing we call "life."

And if they're smart enough to encrypt their communication, aren't they smart enough to travel here and make physical contact? Why haven't they?

Or, if they have, why haven't they used their superior intelligence to make themselves known?

Some, like Stephen Hawking, have worried that aliens might take one look at us and instantly despise us. Or might they just espy our morally barren existence and flit straight back up to the Planet Plim and tell their fellow citizens: "Boy are those humans, like, really stupid."?

Ultimately, the whole conversation is maddening. We just don't know. The charming part is that we wish there were beings out there. We want to know more.

How frustrating would it be if it was actually technology holding us back?