University of Toronto
An early version of this
paper was presented by Allen Tough as "Post-Contact
Security and Communication", Paper IAA-01-IAA.9.2.04, at
the 52nd International Astronautical Congress, October
2001, Toulouse, France.
The scientific search for extraterrestrial intelligence is
accelerating its pace and adopting fresh strategies. This increases
the likelihood of successful detection in the near future.
Humanity's first contact with alien intelligence will trigger
extraordinary attention from the media, from government authorities,
and from the general public.
By improving our
readiness for contact, especially for security during the first 30
days, we can avoid the most negative scenarios—and also enhance
humanity's benefits from this first contact with an alien
This paper examines six potential problem areas:
communicating with the media and the public
communicating with scientific colleagues
an assassin or saboteur
The scientific search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) seeks
irrefutable evidence of alien intelligence. The moment of success,
usually called contact, will launch an extraordinary period in human
history. In order to prepare for the first 30 days after contact, it
is important for us to think and act now. Thought and action cannot
wait until genuine contact is confirmed: events at that time will be
far too fast and overwhelming.
This paper examines six potential problems during those first 30
days, and some solutions for each problem.
In my opinion, each SETI project should have its own solutions in
place for each of the six potential problems. And key international
organizations, such as the SETI League
 and the
Permanent Study Group,
 should have excellent policies and
procedures in place.
The SETI project that I coordinate shares with other SETI projects
the need for solutions. It has a unique additional reason, though,
for needing solutions now. Called the Invitation to ETI,
this project assumes it is quite possible that at least one highly
intelligent extraterrestrial probe has reached our solar system.
The Invitation to ETI is
the only SETI project that is currently trying to detect such
intelligence. If ETI is within the solar system, it may be reluctant
to interact with humanity before we are ready for contact. In order
to elicit a response to our invitation, we must be well prepared to
maximize the benefits and avoid catastrophes. For the Invitation to
ETI project, therefore, adequate preparations are an essential part
of the search strategy.
Let us turn now to the first of the six problems likely to arise in
the first 30 days after one SETI project or another achieves genuine
COMMUNICATING WITH THE MEDIA AND THE PUBLIC
Right after contact, how can the SETI scientists who made the
detection communicate with the various audiences who will be
clamoring for up-to-date news and interviews?
Three mechanisms will be particularly useful:
the World Wide Web
Some SETI projects might
also consider outgoing recorded telephone messages (toll-free or
toll) or fax-on-demand.
(1) The World
For any SETI project, the Web could serve as the key vehicle for
immediate dissemination of news to the mass communications media
as well as the online general public and the
intelligence/security agencies. All news, including a Rio scale
rating, could be posted promptly to a previously designated
"News and Announcements" web page.
Because there is
always some risk of this page being sabotaged or its servers
becoming overwhelmed, all news and messages should also be
posted to several alternate websites and mirror sites in various
countries. Readers should be urged to download and spread the
material—especially if all relevant websites or the entire
Internet goes down. All SETI leaders and all major news outlets
should be urged to monitor the "News and Announcements" web page
Turning again to the Invitation to ETI for a moment, we see that
the Web may play a crucial role in this particular SETI project.
The Web can serve as the main vehicle for communicating any
messages from ETI to people around the world. This project
invites ETI to dialogue with all humanity, and it lists ten
questions that we hope ETI will answer.
 These questions were
distilled from about 1000 questions submitted by 224 people in
By holding a press conference daily and by being as candid as
possible, we may alleviate some fears and rumors.
Press and media interviews with responsible SETI scientists can
counteract the views of critics, crackpots, and single-agenda
spokespersons. Such people may say that our verification process
was flawed, for instance, or this particular ETI has malevolent
intentions. Interviews can help people grasp the positive
implications of contact, as well as see the risks and costs, and
help them see the significance of this moment in history.
2. COMMUNICATING WITH
During the weeks right after contact, how will the key people in the
SETI field communicate amongst themselves?
Hundreds of reporters and citizens will be trying to reach these
people. Their voice mail boxes will quickly fill up. The volume of
incoming postal mail and email will be overwhelming unless they can
hire a large staff to handle it. We may soon decide to turn off our
For success with their various post-contact tasks, it is very
important for SETI scientists to have access to their key
colleagues. Yet the normal communications channels will be choked by
incoming messages from media reporters desperate for an
interview—and from the eager or hostile members of the general
public. What to do?
Expensive solutions are available for the wealthier SETI projects:
Recruit plenty of staff members or volunteers (or hire an outside
company) to screen all incoming email, all telephone calls, and/or
all voicemail messages.
Other SETI projects cannot afford such expensive solutions and must
turn to cheaper answers. The Invitation to ETI project, for
instance, has established an unlisted Yahoo club for its team of 80
colleagues. Any listed person can post a message for everyone else
to see when they log on. Or they can send a message just to the
founder. The SETI League has accomplished something similar with its
closed email list.
We cannot rule out the possibility that powerful authorities from
one or more national governments will make covert and/or overt
efforts to control, hijack, or terminate the SETI project and the
dialogue with ETI. These authorities or agents could be based in
security and intelligence agencies, the military,
departments, or emergency measures organizations.
Agents from several
nations may enter the nation of discovery in order to conduct covert
operations. We may also find ourselves dealing with people with less
legal authority but with very high status or strong moral authority,
such as leaders of certain UN agencies/departments, major religious
leaders, and high-status leaders in the international scientific
Several sorts of motives could lead to this sort of behaviour by
First, some nations will hate losing their
Second, national governments, spy and police agencies,
and multi-national corporations will be desperately eager to get ETI's information first (and keep it secret) for economic and
Third, security agencies charged with preventing
breaches of security are going to feel very nervous about ETI's
capacity because all they will see is the potential threat.
charged with maintaining public order may insist that they monitor
all our communications with ETI and that they be our gatekeepers and
spokespersons for public/media information. They would do this for
public safety, to avoid public panic and a stock market crash, to
feel in control, and for national prestige.
It is important for SETI scientists to face the chilling reality of
government power. If a national government becomes strongly
displeased with a small group of SETI scientists, then in actual
practice there is almost no limit to what that government could do.
Let's face it, if they choose to do so, the authorities could
impound all of their computers and files and data, terminate their
capacity to interact with their colleagues, arrest anyone who tries
to help them, try to close down all relevant websites, even jail
them or make them disappear. It is foolish and dangerous to
underestimate the covert and overt capacities of major national
governments when they are determined, frightened, or
I find these possibilities deeply worrisome, and have little to
suggest as a solution. Perhaps the SETI League, for the benefit of
its members, could establish a task force to explore the matter
deeply. Perhaps this be done in partnership with the IAA's SETI
Permanent Study Group, or with a private benefactor, or with the
SETI Institute or SETI Australia.
4. AN ASSASSIN
OR A SABOTEUR
A single furious assassin. An ideological saboteur eager to stop the
dialogue. Computer hackers and crackers. Vandalism and damage to
computers, files, buildings. The world contains plenty of deranged
people intent on stopping whatever they see as evil, as well as
religious fundamentalists who consider ETI malevolent or a scam.
The prospect of sabotage or violence may seem melodramatic to
scientists at first, but they should note the unpleasant experiences
faced by some abortion doctors and some high-profile celebrities.
Remember John Lennon, Jack and Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King
Jr. Remember too what can happen when a vigorous group opposes a
particular scientific project: laboratories vandalized, computers
smashed, reputations smeared.
What solutions can a SETI project implement? Excellent security (and
advice) provided by an outstanding security firm or by the state.
Arrangements to ensure that the project and the dialogue will
continue no matter what happens to its leaders. Individuals maintain
a low profile and remain as dispensable and non-crucial as possible.
Back up key files lavishly, and be ready to operate from various
locations. Handle all deliveries offsite.
It is important to have these security measures in place to protect
the personal safety of high-profile SETI leaders, particularly those
on the successful project team. These measures will ensure the
continuation of the SETI project. What a loss to future generations
if the incoming data is aborted or lost because of saboteurs!
During the first few post-contact days, an amazing variety of
officials (and prestigious scientists, politicians, and religious
leaders) may demand briefing meetings, reports, committee
appearances, lab tours, and copies of the data. Although not
ill-intentioned, such requests could be sufficiently numerous to
paralyze the project staff at a crucial time.
If funds are available, probably the best solution is to hire plenty
of staff members and even an outside firm to handle the deluge of
demands. Options for the less wealthy SETI projects are rather
There is likely some risk of expensive time-consuming lawsuits by
people angry at certain consequences of contact, by people with an
agenda who latch onto any high-profile event in order to spread
their views, or by our opponents and enemies. Other legal costs
could occur if some official becomes unhappy with our behaviour and
decides to prosecute us.
If these threats seem likely to materialize, we may have to take
advantage of post-contact opportunities to earn large sums of money
to set aside for future legal costs and for the possibility of
losing a major lawsuit.
BAD NEWS, GOOD
In summary, the bad news is that when the first SETI project
succeeds in confirming genuine contact, it will immediately face
extraordinary challenges that are likely to outstrip its resources
and preparations. During the first 30 days, security and
communications will be particularly difficult. No SETI project is
adequately prepared yet to handle the first 30 days successfully.
And the international committees are even less prepared.
The good news is that solutions can likely be achieved. With careful
thought and vigorous preparation, SETI scientists (and their
international committees) could implement plans with a good chance
of success during those first 30 days.
of earlier drafts of this paper were received from Robert
Bradbury, Jim Dator, Robert A. Freitas Jr, Albert Harrison,
Carol Oliver, Cathy Rand, and Douglas Vakoch. Portions of an
early version were presented by Allen Tough as "Post-Contact
Security and Communication", Paper IAA-01-IAA.9.2.04, at the
52nd International Astronautical Congress, October 2001,
Allen Tough, "How to
Achieve Contact: Five Promising Strategies." In Allen Tough
(Editor), When SETI Succeeds: The Impact of High-Information
Contact. Bellevue, WA: Foundation For the Future, 2000. Pages
115-125. Also available at
For example, see
Allen Tough, "A
critical examination of factors that might encourage secrecy."
Acta Astronautica, 21(2), 1990. Pages 97-102.