Digitization of WMDReview of the “Digitization of WMD” symposium

By Justin Hurt

Published 1 February 2019

The digitization of biological and medical science is providing exciting and promising new pathways for improving health and daily life for mankind and our environment. The possibilities for new treatments, better fitness, and less prevalence of genetic diseases are numerous. However, these technologies and the information associated with emerging techniques carry certain risks and vulnerabilities. It is through understanding these risks and continuing to develop mitigation strategies for them, especially during the technology conceptualization and development phases, that we can continue to build promising new tools to improve life with confidence while addressing how they should be properly used.

As part of National Defense University’s hosted topical discussion series, the Center for the Study of Weapons of Mass Destruction (CSWMD) hosted a symposium titled “The Digitization of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD): Exploring the Impact of Digital Components of Emerging Technologies” on 17 January 2019 on Fort McNair. The discussion “The Digitization of Biology” presented a very pertinent conversation of the emerging concerns of new technologies in biodefense and biosecurity. Hosted by Dr. Diane DiEuliis of CSWMD, the panel included an initial topical discussion by Dr. Corey Hudson from Sandia National Laboratory regarding modeling genomic and synthetic biology facilities at scale. Next, Dr. Eleonore Pauwels of the United Nations University talked about biointelligence and the availability of knowledge. Finally, Supervisory Special Agent Ed You from the Federal Bureau of Investigation discussed ideas on how to address safeguards in the emerging bioeconomy.

Some trends that have been notable, especially in terms of synthetic biology, is that automation is becoming increasingly critical and pertinent for emerging biological technologies. The associated computational systems and machinery have inherent cyberbiosecurity risks, including privacy risks, system operation issues, manufacturing risks (that include issues with attributing who made what), and the risk of possible sabotage. As genomics grows, it becomes increasingly automated, thus increasing the system risks. As an emerging consumer product, genomics becomes harder to control and secure at scale. In addition, as an internet connected technology, firewalling becomes variable and not generally standardized. Modeling appropriate measures for large-scale genomics is important because it helps to understand the effects of big data, the similarities and differences between the plethora of different open source bioinformatics software systems which don’t always adhere to security best practices. This sometimes leaves personally identifiable information vulnerable as data fragments in an internet connected process.