Home Hello ETI About Who We Are News Links Search Contact Us Main Navigation Banner

Security During the First Thirty Days
by Allen Tough, Ph.D., University of Toronto
email tough @ ieti.org


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 intelligence. This paper examines six potential problem areas: (a) communicating with the media and the public; (b) communicating with scientific colleagues; (c) government control; (d) an assassin or saboteur; (e) well-meaning officials; and (f) lawsuits. [1]


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 [2] and the IAA's SETI Permanent Study Group, [3] 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, [4] this project assumes it is quite possible that at least one highly intelligent extraterrestrial probe has reached our solar system. [5] 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 contact.


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: (1) the World Wide Web, (2) press conferences, and (3) interviews. Some SETI projects might also consider outgoing recorded telephone messages (toll-free or toll) or fax-on-demand.

(1) The World Wide Web

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.[6] 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 frequently.

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. [7] These questions were distilled from about 1000 questions submitted by 224 people in 12 countries.

(2) Press Conferences

By holding a press conference daily and by being as candid as possible, we may alleviate some fears and rumors.

(3) Interviews

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.


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 fax machines.

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, national police 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 community.

Several sorts of motives could lead to this sort of behaviour by national governments.[8] First, some nations will hate losing their superiority. 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 military advantage. 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. Government officials 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 angry.

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.


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 severely limited.


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.


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.


  1. Valuable critiques 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, Toulouse.
  2. http://www.setileague.org
  3. http://iaaseti.org
  4. http://ieti.org
  5. 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 http://ieti.org/articles/strategy.htm
  6. For example, see http://ieti.org/news
  7. http://ieti.org/hello/question.htm
  8. Allen Tough, "A critical examination of factors that might encourage secrecy." Acta Astronautica, 21(2), 1990. Pages 97-102.

Copyright © 2001 by Allen Tough. All rights reserved.
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.

Valid HTML 4.01!.

Section 508 Accessibility Compliant

The Invitation to ETI was founded by Prof. Allen Tough
|- Home -|- Hello -|- About -|- Who We Are -|- News -|- Links -|- Search -|- Contact Us -|
Copyright © Allen Tough and Invitation to ETI. Maintained by Microcomm
This page last updated 21 April 2006
top of page
Top of Page