It’s hard to contain information hazards

Laurie Garrett’s Foreign Affairs piece on synbio from a while back exaggerates the state of current progress, but it also contains some good commentary on the difficulty of containing hazardous materials when those hazardous materials — unlike the case of nuclear fissile materials — are essentially information:

Fouchier and Kawaoka drew the wrath of many national security and public health experts, who demanded to know how the deliberate creation of potential pandemic flu strains could possibly be justified… the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity… [ordered] that the methods used to create these new mammalian forms of H5N1 never be published. “It’s not clear that these particular [experiments] have created something that would destroy the world; maybe it’ll be the next set of experiments that will be critical,” [Paul] Keim told reporters. “And that’s what the world discussion needs to be about.”

In the end, however, the December 2011 do-not-publish decision… was reversed… [and] both papers were published in their entirety by Science and Nature in 2012, and [the] temporary moratorium on dual-use research on influenza viruses was eventually lifted… Osterholm, Keim, and most of the vocal opponents of the work retreated, allowing the advisory board to step back into obscurity.

… What stymies the very few national security and law enforcement experts closely following this biological revolution is the realization that the key component is simply information. While virtually all current laws in this field, both local and global, restrict and track organisms of concern (such as, say, the Ebola virus), tracking information is all but impossible. Code can be buried anywhere — al Qaeda operatives have hidden attack instructions inside porn videos, and a seemingly innocent tweet could direct readers to an obscure Internet location containing genomic code ready to be downloaded to a 3-D printer. Suddenly, what started as a biology problem has become a matter of information security.

See also Bostrom, “Information Hazards” (2011).

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