Is encryption keeping us from finding extra terrestrials?

Humans have speculated about the existence of sapient, sentient beings from outer space for generations. Meeting and communicating with such extraterrestrial creatures has been a prominent theme in science fiction stories for years, harking back to the days of H.G. Wells and the publication of War of the Worlds in 1898. Forty years later, this story would surface again in Orson Welles’ infamous radio broadcast, the first contemporary example of a media story gone “viral.” Many people believe that given the sheer size of the universe, extraterrestrial civilizations have to exist somewhere. But where could they be?

The Fermi Paradox notes the apparent contradiction between the high probability of the existence of extraterrestrial civilizations and the lack of evidence for said existence. Drake’s Equation postulates that such civilizations surely exist. Our sun is a typical star, and there are billions like it. At least some of these stars will have planets that can support life, and at least some of these planets will be home to advanced civilizations. The paradox arises in that if such a civilization were to use robot probes, they could explore and/or colonize the entire galaxy within four million years. We should be finding evidence of such explorations and so far, we’ve come up empty handed.

Different researchers have put forth various hypotheses explaining the lack of alien contacts. Certain individuals have postulated that aliens may simply be uninterested in making contact with us, others have suggested that their civilizations disappeared before they developed the tools to communicate or travel through space, some are confident that aliens do not exist at all. Edward Snowden, notorious NSA whistleblower, recently spoke about his own theories regarding extraterrestrial life on Neil deGrasse Tyson‘s “Star Talk” podcast. His idea: encrypted communication, codes that appear “indistinguishable to us from cosmic microwave background radiation” halt our efforts to isolate and discern alien messages. Despite the fact that we’re putting our most advanced sky scanning technologies to work, alien signals may be so well encrypted that they are impossible for us to pick up.

Encryption is the conversion of data into another form that cannot be easily understood by anybody other than the intended recipient. Modern encryption algorithms play a major role in the security of all IT systems, but they are based on the ancient science of cryptography – before the digital age, sensitive messages were sent and received using scytales, which enabled government officials to decode transposition ciphers. Today, computers do the job of protecting both the data and the user’s’ privacy. However, as hacking methods become more sophisticated and mobile and cloud-based web interfaces usher in additional complications and concerns, current encryption protocols have widely been deemed ineffective. The growing list of vendors offering “smart home” security systems, IP-enabled thermostats, and other “intelligent” things and appliances often send signals that are vulnerable to attacks from third parties, and Snowden himself accused the NSA of attempting to weaken encryption products and subvert cryptography standards.

In regards to extraterrestrial communication, the SETI Institute considers the possibility of alien encryption to be a non-issue. Snowden was correct when he said that encrypted content looks like irrelevant noise, but he was wrong to assume what scientists are actually looking for amongst the stars. Regardless of whether or not aliens attempt to hide their signals we can distinguish the difference between naturally occurring radio noise (such as that from a black hole or quasar) and narrowband radio emissions which would indicate the presence of a transmitter. It would be akin to hearing someone yell in the dark; you don’t need to understand the language to know that they’re there. Encryption might become an issue later on, but only after we’ve discovered evidence of alien metadata.

In July, British scientist Stephen Hawking and Russian businessman Yuri Milner announced a US$100-million initiative which would be the largest SETI project so far. It has two prongs: Breakthrough Message, an international competition in which people would create messages that could be sent to an alien civilization, and Breakthrough Listen, a program in which scientists will listen for messages from the 100 closest galaxies and the 1,000,000 closest stars. The scientists would be looking for radio messages and optical laser transmissions for the next ten years. The radio surveys would cover ten times more sky than previous programs while the equipment for the laser surveys is so sensitive it could detect an ordinary light bulb from 25 trillion miles away.

To quote Carl Sagan, “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” Just because we haven’t found aliens doesn’t mean they don’t exist. There have been other attempts to contact aliens, beginning with Project Ozma in 1960, which searched a meager two stars for signs of intelligent life.

It led to Ozma II, which searched 650 stars for four years during the 1970s. Over the years, our searches have become larger and more ambitious and the technology devoted to them more sophisticated and sensitive. Our inability to make contact with extraterrestrials may just mean that intelligent life, or life in general, is very rare and/or that we are the only sapient beings in our corner of the galaxy.

To that end, simply communicating the fragility of our existence — if only to the other 7-billion humans around on Earth — should encourage better stewardship and care of one another and our planetary home.



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