This can be considered sort of a hybrid post, bringing together “On the threat of synthetic biology,” “On GATTACA and taggants,” and “On fear.” Or, in other words, I’m so boring that I can’t really write anything new.
My blanket scoff regarding the threat of synthetic biology has a few caveats, which I have indicated along the way. But the biggest caveat is this: given how primed we are to go nuts at the slightest provocation, it really wouldn’t take much in the way of synthesis to create a spoof of a disease. This is especially true given that the vast majority of biodefense assays at this point are based at some level on sequence (usually PCR, because of its power and adaptability).
Why assemble a mad scientist’s lair in the heart of a volcano to build smallpox from scratch when you could just as easily make a relatively small piece of smallpox that you know could / would be detected? Spread it around, call the media, and sit back and watch the chaos unfold. At the least, “government sources” would be unable to confirm or deny the nature of the threat for many weeks, as they attempted to find the other pieces of the virus. And even then there would be the issue of whether the terrorists were college-level pranksters or an Aum Shinrikyo equivalent, experimenting in place.
Now there are social memes other than educating the populace to try to curb bioterrorism. There is always the expedient of just deterring the population with a different kind of fear. This seems to be what we’re up to now, with increasing control over biological research, and life-altering consequences for those who do not conform to a rigid set of standards (see Butler, Thomas, for details). I think this is stupid, but it doesn’t matter what I think: the folks that sign my paychecks say do it, then I have to do it.
To my mind, this is now our bulwark against domestic spoofing: dire consequences. It will be interesting to see if this barrier holds, as DNA becomes more readily available, and as the pushback against what some see as the shift to being a police state increases. In order to overcome the dire consequences, you have to accept that they are worth overcoming … which is well beyond the prankster stage. That said, this country has a long history of civil disobedience. Again dating myself, I lived through one such era (although I was young at the time, really), and some of my constant companions were “Steal This Book” and other volumes available from the ever-reliable Paladin Press. I did not become a terrorist (although I did just about blow my foot off).
It seems quaint to talk about books in the age of instant information, but I’m reasonably confident that the Internet has actually decreased access to ‘real’ knowledge, rather than increasing it. This may be the subject of a future post.
Without completely second-guessing the government, I think that the “dire consequences” strategy in lockstep with the “youse kids don’t know nuthin’” strategy may be working. The disaffected nerds make computer viruses, rather than strands of Ebola. Perhaps the DIY Bio crowd will provide an outlet for rebels without a clue, although I hope not. Not because of the dire consequences to society, but because some poor suck is going to be behind bars forever, and I’ll have to endure another insane layer of bureaucracy.
None of the above has any relevance to foreign spoofing. The door is wide open, and Flying Spaghetti Monster help us all.
- originally posted on Monday, October 4th, 2010