We discuss the recent "realpolitik" analysis of Wisian & Traphagan (2020, W&T) of the potential geopolitical fallout of the success of SETI. They conclude that "passive" SETI involves an underexplored yet significant risk that, in the event of a successful, passive detection of extraterrestrial technology, state-level actors could seek to gain an information monopoly on communications with an ETI. These attempts could lead to international conflict and potentially disastrous consequences. In response to this possibility, they argue that scientists and facilities engaged in SETI should preemptively engage in significant security protocols to forestall this risk.
We find several flaws in their analysis. While we do not dispute that a realpolitik response is possible, we uncover concerns with W&T's presentation of the realpolitik paradigm, and we argue that sufficient reason is not given to justify treating this potential scenario as action-guiding over other candidate geopolitical responses. Furthermore, even if one assumes that a realpolitik response is the most relevant geopolitical response, we show that it is highly unlikely that a nation could successfully monopolize communication with ETI. Instead, the real threat that the authors identify is based on the perception by state actors that an information monopoly is likely. However, as we show, this perception is based on an overly narrow contact scenario.
Overall, we critique W&T's argument and resulting recommendations on technical, political, and ethical grounds. Ultimately, we find that not only are W&T's recommendations unlikely to work, they may also precipitate the very ills that they foresee. As an alternative, we recommend transparency and data sharing (which are consistent with currently accepted best practices), further development of post-detection protocols, and better education of policymakers in this space.
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