Is it possible that all those seas of volumes of big biological data being churned out in the life sciences could be accessed by hackers and would-be terrorists seeking to create bioweapons?
Researchers all over the world are pumping out information on a growing list of nasty diseases and dumping it into various types of databanks and resources. Meanwhile, hackers seem to be able to access all sorts of secure networks, from Amazon to the Pentagon.
How worried should we be about that?
The American Association for the Advancement of Science thinks there is reason for concern, and this week hosted a panel discussion in Washington, DC, in which experts in biology, security, and data management and analysis weighed in on the possibility bad people could use genetic data about viruses or other organisms to engineer bioweapons.
The open culture of academic life and slack cybersecurity practices at universities offer a vulnerability that could be exploited, the panelists said, according to FCW.
Edward You, of the FBI's Biological Countermeasures Unit notes that scientists may not even know the consequences of their research, and that studies in the genome of one organism could provide information about lethal pathogens well after the study has been published.
Security was a simpler problem in the days of the Manhattan Project, adds Mark Greaves of the National Security Directorate at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, and nuclear security since evolved from its "highly classified origins."
But the biotech and bioengineering industries arose separate from the national security apparatus, and a closed security system like the one that worked for nuclear research is not possible, Greaves says.
He says that best practices guidelines could help researches control who accesses their data, and that maybe government research funders could require that advanced controls be put in place as a precondition to funding biological research.