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DNA Sequence Withheld From New Botulism Paper 182

Posted by timothy
from the keep-your-genes-zipped dept.
New submitter rex.clts writes "In the IT security world, it is common practice to withhold specifics when announcing a newly discovered software vulnerability. The exact details regarding a buffer overflow or race condition are typically kept secret until a patch is available, to slow the proliferation of exploits against the hole. For the first time, this practice has been extended to medical publishing. A new form of Botulism has been identified, but its DNA sequence (the genetic code that makes up the toxin) has been withheld, until an antidote has been found. It seems that censorship in the name of "security" is spreading (with DHS involved this comes as no surprise.) Is this the right move?"
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DNA Sequence Withheld From New Botulism Paper

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday October 19, 2013 @01:26AM (#45172937)

    When has with holding information 'ever' been the right move?

  • by Jane Q. Public (1010737) on Saturday October 19, 2013 @01:31AM (#45172949)
    Considering that there is no antidote for regular botulism, my guess is that this "censorship" is doomed to failure.

    Unlike software patches, which may take days or weeks, it looks like it could be years for this. While I'm not a big supporter of giving ammunition to terrorists (just for example), I doubt very much this secrecy will get very far. It usually doesn't. So it looks like a false sense of security ("security theater") to me.
  • by YttriumOxide (837412) <yttriumox@gmai l . com> on Saturday October 19, 2013 @01:36AM (#45172969) Homepage Journal

    When has with holding information 'ever' been the right move?

    That depends on the kind of withholding, the period of it and the type of information. I withhold information from the public such as my bank card's PIN, my password, and so on.

    I think it's at the very least an arguable case as to whether these researchers should withhold this. By releasing it, there would be a non-zero danger that it would be used for harm with little to no positive gain. The exact value of this non-zero danger vs the value of the positive gain is what they likely thought about before making the decision.

    Whether you agree or disagree with their decision, surely you must see the merit in this kind of evaluation?

  • Re:Hypocrite. (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Ultra64 (318705) on Saturday October 19, 2013 @01:59AM (#45173067)

    Right, cause "TheMiddleRoad" is the name your parents gave you.

  • by Jah-Wren Ryel (80510) on Saturday October 19, 2013 @02:30AM (#45173137)

    By releasing it, there would be a non-zero danger that it would be used for harm with little to no positive gain.

    If it isn't public that severely limits the number of people who can work on finding an antidote. Even if they are making the information available to "qualified professionals" it still substantially increases the barrier to finding a fix. Hell, for all we know, someone else has already seen the same strain and been working on a cure but they only speak chinese and this extra friction to figuring out if they even have the same strain is enough to keep the two groups from collaborating.

    Whether you agree or disagree with their decision, surely you must see the merit in this kind of evaluation?

    When the day comes that we start seeing terrorists attacking people with obscure scientific journal data instead of simple bombs then the question might be a reasonable one to ask. Until then the question itself is hype and paranoia.

  • Re:Hypocrite. (Score:5, Insightful)

    by MysteriousPreacher (702266) on Saturday October 19, 2013 @02:31AM (#45173139) Journal

    Says Ultra64.

    If person a makes a claim, that person b calls them on, it doesn't follow that person b is hypocritical for asking person a to do what person a said everybody else should. Got it?

  • by gl4ss (559668) on Saturday October 19, 2013 @02:36AM (#45173149) Homepage Journal

    yeah since the regular botox is so hard to get.... ....

    if the new strand stays active in air, powder laying around for longer then I guess it's a problem.

    otherwise it just sounds like they're keeping the toy for themselves.

  • Re:Hypocrite. (Score:5, Insightful)

    by MysteriousPreacher (702266) on Saturday October 19, 2013 @02:52AM (#45173185) Journal

    Not really. The burden of proof is on the person making the claim. Consider another example. Bob says that we should all learn a second language. Alice has mad no attempt to learn a second language, and neither has Bob. Alice has no obligation here, while Bob really should explain why he is exempt.

  • Re:Hypocrite. (Score:5, Insightful)

    by artor3 (1344997) on Saturday October 19, 2013 @03:19AM (#45173253)

    Mr. MiddleRoad wasn't the one to claim that withholding information is never useful.

  • by odie5533 (989896) on Saturday October 19, 2013 @03:46AM (#45173299)
    It's basically no barrier. If you want to research the strain, you're going to need a sample anyways so you're going to have to correspond with the researchers in some way to get the code and the sample.
  • Ignorance (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Optimal Cynic (2886377) on Saturday October 19, 2013 @04:33AM (#45173387)

    So much ignorance here! Here's a working scientist's opinion:

    http://pipeline.corante.com/archives/2013/10/16/holding_back_experimental_details_with_reason.php [corante.com]

    And Derek Lowe is about as libertarian as scientists get.

  • by PSVMOrnot (885854) on Saturday October 19, 2013 @04:34AM (#45173389)

    You realize this is about the paper. There is nothing to stop his colleagues - who he happens to know have a suitable lab and skills - from calling up and asking for the info. This just lets him choose who gets this dangerous piece of knowledge

  • by mysidia (191772) on Saturday October 19, 2013 @04:51AM (#45173427)

    If it isn't public that severely limits the number of people who can work on finding an antidote. Even if they are making the information available to "qualified professionals" it still substantially increases the barrier to finding a fix.

    Perhaps this is the intent behind witholding the sequence. They want to give themselves an advantage in finding the antidote, while still publishing their research.

    By witholding the sequence, which they have learned ---- they can use it to give themselves a competitive advantage towards also being the first to find the antidote: while the other researchers have to work blindly, with no genetic code to assist them in finding/isolating the new strain or work on identifying an antidote.

  • Re:Hypocrite. (Score:3, Insightful)

    by chris.alex.thomas (1718644) on Saturday October 19, 2013 @05:55AM (#45173543) Homepage

    it doesn't matter whether anybody cares about him/her/the person, what matters is the message, which was, that the anonymous coward was withholding his personal information because it was the "right move" to protect the coward from outside intrusion therefore it was a hypocritical statement.

    you on the other hand, are just an asshole, I care more about somebody pointing out hypocrisy because they are useful in society, assholes however, aren't really very useful for anything....apart from shitting on things....

  • Right move (Score:2, Insightful)

    by golodh (893453) on Saturday October 19, 2013 @06:00AM (#45173553)
    The first question: "when was it ever proper to suppress information" is an easy one to answer.

    Ever since the potential damage of releasing information outweighed the potential utility of releasing said information it has been right and proper to keep information under wraps.

    Now how about this case?

    As the article states, botulism toxin is the most potent toxin we know (as in smallest lethal dose), and what researchers found was a new variant of it to which there is no antidote as of yet.

    With the DNA sequence published, anyone with a simple bacteriological lab can produce it. There is a substantial risk that e.g. Al Quaeda (or worse, some home grown terrorist or some disgruntled Harris & Klebold combo or another McVeigh) gets their hands on it and will dump it somewhere in the drinking water supply of a large US city.

    What's the risk of suppressing the information? Well, first that it becomes a habit, second that we might delay finding an antidote because we keep the sequence under wraps.

    I personally believe that the risk of disclosure is a little too large to allow this particular sequence to be published, and outweighs the risk of suppressing it. So I'm convinced it's better to allow this information to be suppressed than to disallow it to be suppressed.

    Let's be thankful that we still have someone able and willing to screen this sort of information and delay or suppress its publication.

  • Re: Right move (Score:4, Insightful)

    by O('_')O_Bush (1162487) on Saturday October 19, 2013 @07:46AM (#45173811)
    Al Queda (boogeymen) could do this with normal botulism and still be effective if what you were stating was practical or if they had any idea how.

    Major cities don't keep botulism antidote stockpiles large enough for their entire city nearby, and it stands to reason that if an attack was so trivial, they'd hit many targets at once like they did with airplanes.

    That is, withholding or not, we'd be screwed. And there are far more effective ways to cause harm than this if they started being bioterrorists (like reengineering the Spanish Flu from selectively breeding one of several strainst of zoonotic flu floating around).

    No, this information was withheld to give the originating scientists lots of time to make more discoveries and papers without competition from peers.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday October 19, 2013 @09:52AM (#45174485)

    You realize this is about the paper. There is nothing to stop his colleagues - who he happens to know have a suitable lab and skills - from calling up and asking for the info. This just lets him choose who gets this dangerous piece of knowledge

    In turn, there is nothing stopping him from disallowing information to anyone he does not like. How can we know he is not a fraud? Maybe he is only giving access to people that wont rat him out or can't understand a honeypot of nonsense data.

    This is not science. There is no peer review. This is faith. I am AC! I am the president! For national security reasons I will only allow people I want to confirm my real identity to confirm my real identity. As for the rest of you, just trust me because I am the president. For my next executive order, I demand mod points and cookies for breakfast!

We warn the reader in advance that the proof presented here depends on a clever but highly unmotivated trick. -- Howard Anton, "Elementary Linear Algebra"

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