Saturday, March 31, 2007

DNA Hacking 100% Possible, 0% Detectable

Most computer virus detection technologies have been around for more than a decade now, and the better "real time" detection technologies, such as those developed by Authentium, are close to 100% effective.

Unfortunately, as Ray Kurzweil writes in a recent article on biological viruses, current biological threat detection systems are 0% effective in real time. In fact, as of this writing, no "real time" biological virus detection capabilities currently exist.

That's right: Despite billions of dollars spent every year in research, the biological world is currently virtually defenseless against bio-hacking.

The reason this is troubling to me - and should be troubling to you - is that hacking human DNA is fast becoming almost as cheap and as easy to do as hacking computer code. Worse, most of the labware - the gear needed to create a distributable smallpox virus, such as DNA synthesizers - and the information on a target DNA sequence or genome, can be found online.

Secondhand DNA sequencing machines (Kurzweil calls these machines "inkjet printers for DNA") are available from a large range of distributors and secondhand stores. Here's a DNA sequencer for sale for under $10,000 on eBay's German site:

Genomes and research papers detailing the work of scientists in the field of DNA synthesis are just as easily available. A ten second Google search revealed several research papers detailing the smallpox genome, including one describing "genome linear double-stranded DNA sequences of the alastrim virus Garcia-1966, a laboratory reference strain from an outbreak associated with 0.8% case fatalities in Brazil in 1966."

Not that you really need to do this level of research - pieces of the smallpox virus itself can be ordered online. In the UK, a team of journalists from The Guardian managed to order three samples of DNA from the protein coating of the smallpox virus, just a few months back. The copies of the sequence were sent to them by mail in a plastic bag. The order cost just thirty-three pounds.

Ordering the basic genetic material necessary for hacking a genome is currently not covered by regulations in many countries. Upon questioning by reporters, the UK distributor, VH Bio Ltd, admitted "There are no regulations in place which require us to carry out background checks on potential customers." The reporters were not challenged at two other European companies they approached.

So why am I writing about this, instead of writing about IT-related threats, such as computer viruses? I'm writing because hacking has changed utterly in the past five years - it has moved from being the province of teenagers to the focus of organized criminal gangs, and terrorists.

I'm worried that we're approaching a point where bio-hacking may soon start approaching computer hacking with respect to the cost of creating a threat, yet we lack any comparable capability when it comes to detecting an outbreak.

We need to grow up our capabilities with respect to detecting biological viruses. We need a real-time bio-threat detection capability every bit as good as the best we have in the computer virus mitigation world.

This is no trivial endeavor. It is going to take a major investment - maybe more than the cost of the entire Iraq war to date. But the return on this investment might just be the greatest return on any investment ever made.

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