This week, members of the United States House Intelligence Committee will receive a classified briefing on a topic of universal and enduring controversy: Unidentified Flying Objects (UFOs). Throughout history humans have been in awe of celestial bodies beyond our own. The curiosity about extraterrestrial life often stimulates fierce debate. Twenty years ago this week, I came to appreciate just how passionate people can be about the subject of alien life.
As the inspector general (IG) of the Tennessee Valley Authority (a U.S. government owned corporation), I was responsible for the audit and investigative functions of the company. Shortly after I became IG, we reported a cybersecurity breach that had allowed an unauthorized third-party access to our network after hours. It wasn’t a significant breach at all by today’s standards. However, in the end we reported that 17 employees (out of a workforce of almost 13,000) had downloaded an application from the Internet that allowed the University of California, Berkeley’s SETI@home project to commandeer the company’s spare bandwidth in their search for extraterrestrial intelligence. In return, the employees received a cool screen-saver.
At the time, the SETI computer program had been downloaded by more than three million computer users worldwide. While the breach was a violation of the agency’s written policy, we did not consider it a serious one. We recommended that administrative action be taken against the employees—something IGs, though not internal auditors, occasionally do. TVA employees were warned that any future computer security violations could result in dismissal. No evidence of damage to TVA’s computer network was found, and TVA managers conducted a computer security awareness campaign throughout the agency.
We may have considered it a minor issue (dedicating barely a paragraph in a publicly available 35-page comprehensive report that I sent to Congress for that period), but the idea of TVA employees using government computers to hunt space aliens was fuel for the news media. A reporter for the Knoxville News Sentinel reported the facts, and it was distributed over the Scripps Howard News Service. Before I realized what was happening, the story was being reported by media outlets across the United States and as far away as Australia!
The topic became a source of fierce debate on the Internet, and I received the most vicious public criticism and hate mail of my career. Most critics (including a professor of a well-known university) accused me of being a denier of extra-terrestrial life, and suggested I was part of a broader conspiracy to suppress the existence of alien space life. You cannot make this stuff up.
Over the years, I have shared this story many times as an example of how audit results that may appear insignificant can create a tsunami of negative reaction. A recounting of the TVA experience in my first book was even featured in the Wall Street Journal in 2014.
Twenty years later, it is hard to believe there could have been any controversy over our recommendations to restrict employees from signing up work computers to outside programs such as SETI. The past two decades have changed perspectives on many things. But at least two things are still true today. First, small stones in audit reports still cause “big waves.” And second, the passion of those who believe in extraterrestrial life still burns strongly.