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Biotech Censorship Science Your Rights Online

Science Panel Recommends Censoring Bird Flu Papers 126

Morty writes "The National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) has recommended that details of two research papers involving Avian Flu not be published because of security concerns. At least one of the research groups says that their work should be logically reproducible. The NSABB's censorship recommendations do not (currently) have the force of law, but Science and Nature voluntarily delayed publication."
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Science Panel Recommends Censoring Bird Flu Papers

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  • FYI (Score:4, Informative)

    by elsurexiste ( 1758620 ) on Wednesday February 01, 2012 @06:20AM (#38889115) Journal

    These people are an official panel of the US Department of Health. From Wikipedia:

    It is tasked with recommending policies on such questions as how to prevent published research in biotechnology from aiding terrorism, without slowing scientific progress.

    Just in case you've never heard of them (I know I haven't).

    • by Hadlock ( 143607 )

      What's the difference between the US Department of Health and National Institute of Health (NIH)? I know the latter is part of the executive branch, but that'sit.

      • Re:FYI (Score:4, Informative)

        by sirlark ( 1676276 ) on Wednesday February 01, 2012 @07:48AM (#38889571)
        The US Department of Health is concerned mainly with management of public health, maintianing the public health care system, and responding to widespread health emergencies. The NIH is a research body primarily involved with research in the health and biosciences, and with distributing funding to other organisations doing research in those fields.
      • Re:FYI (Score:4, Informative)

        by dkf ( 304284 ) <> on Wednesday February 01, 2012 @08:27AM (#38889809) Homepage

        What's the difference between the US Department of Health and National Institute of Health (NIH)? I know the latter is part of the executive branch, but that'sit.

        They're both executive branch. The NIH are formally a part of the DoH, and have responsibility for doing (and coordinating) research for the department. There are similar arrangements in other departments (the DoD has DARPA, the DoE fund a number of national labs, etc.) and it's not very remarkable. In general, it's useful for the departments to have research arms in order to both provide solid scientifically-based advice on policy, and to gently encourage everyone else to do research that benefits the nation as well as themselves.

    • Except it's not possible to do that. Science works when the information is not censored and free to anyone with the skills and knowledge to build on it. By preventing stuff from being published like this for fear that someone somewhere 'might' use this in a way that $government doesn't want hinders progress.

      One thing that I can think of off the top of my head that somone can use this research for is to make a virus that they can then alter its payload to say deliver gene thearpy with a high success rate.

      • Your proposition has been dealt with long ago by ethicists and epistemologists.

        Consider the case of R&D for military applications. Frame your argument around the knowledge on how to build effective atomic bombs, for example. Think of arguments for and against publication, including whether publication hinders or promotes progress. Consider whether knowledge is ultimately morals-agnostic or is always permeated with the researcher's moral code at some point.

        tl;dr : knowledge isn't always a positive thing.

    • Recommending censorship of scientific literature is extremely dangerous ground, and a precedent which could lead to the halt of scientific advancement on earth if the limit is applied (mathematically).

      Scientific advancement generally lets us do difficult things more easily. Humans are reasonably resilient to other humans, but still rather delicate and fragile over the spectrum of physical and chemical (biological) forces. Scientific advancement will allow an individual human to apply physical and chemical

  • by gtch ( 1977476 ) on Wednesday February 01, 2012 @06:25AM (#38889147)

    If they don't want anyone to read the papers, they should print off millions of copies with an official-looking government cover, then send them out all over the country with big letters on the envelope: "Important Information from Your Government".

    That guarantees no-one will read it.

  • Quick (Score:2, Offtopic)

    by rossdee ( 243626 )

    Call Dustin Hoffman and tell him Gary Sinese is immune

    • Re:Quick (Score:5, Funny)

      by RDW ( 41497 ) on Wednesday February 01, 2012 @06:47AM (#38889259)

      Call Dustin Hoffman and tell him Gary Sinese is immune

      It's the supporting cast you have to worry about. From the Washington Post article:

      "Fears of bad actors spreading a mutant, highly transmissible virus suffuse the three-page note published by the board."

  • Nor will they ever be binding as one of the groups is based in Europe and one of the journals is published/hq'd in Europe. Why would their law (NIH is based in the US) ever be binding to a group/publication not based in the US. The US needs to a refresher course in jurisdiction.
    • by equex ( 747231 ) on Wednesday February 01, 2012 @06:58AM (#38889325) Homepage
      Afaik, this research is also locked down and kept secret in Europe for the same reasons as in the US. These strains of flu viruses are well understood and is probably one of the easiest to modify given the knowledge and research already done. I know little of the subject, but let's say the Stuxnet code was published and all that was needed to make it take down 70% of the nuclear plants in the world at the same time by simply uncommenting a ''Fuxx0rThemAllSimultaneously()' function call. Even a novice programmer would figure that out. Maybe that flu virus is analogous, and requires not much else than a novice fucking around with it to make it uber-deadly. I'd prefer they kept it hidden.
      • by oreaq ( 817314 ) on Wednesday February 01, 2012 @08:07AM (#38889685)

        [...] but let's say the Stuxnet code was published [...]

        Most of it was decompiled and published here []. You can find all the binaries online if you're really interested. Hiding the results is just security by obscurity. The Dutch scientist didn't perform some magic trick that nobody else can do. Doesn't make it any less scary though.

        • by equex ( 747231 )
          My point was that it's not easily done by a novice. Go ahead and modify that reversed hybid C/assembly code, reassemble and deploy it meaningfully if you can. Frankly, I'd prefer that the script kiddies does not have access to this code or, god forbid, any GUI slapped on top of this. Github is basically hosting a recipe for disaster.
          • by oreaq ( 817314 )

            The exploits used in stuxnet are already integrated in metasploit and canvas. The script kiddies already have access.

      • things that are basically obvious to people with ordinary knowledge needed by any industrial worker, well, you cant keep them secret.

        nuclear weapons, for example, are not hard to build. the hard part is scraping together enough enriched uranium.

      • you're missing the point. i'm not arguing that it should/shouldn't be locked down. i'm arguing that an NIH has no LEGAL right over a UK publisher and a Dutch group. i'm a biochemist and understand the science. i don't understand how anyone at the NIH could impose their LEGAL will on a european funding agency or research group
  • by Kinky Bass Junk ( 880011 ) on Wednesday February 01, 2012 @06:39AM (#38889221)
    When security vulnerabilities are discovered in a piece of software (that is not open source), the release of that information may be delayed to allow sufficient time for the developers to patch the vulnerability. This organisation is basically asking that the release of this information be delayed until such a time as it is irrelevant. The problem we see with this is that people will always find the unreleased vulnerabilities, and it is entirely possible that this will happen in this case, but it would be a bit more catastrophic than a 0-day IIS vulnerability.
    • by Hentes ( 2461350 )

      If you are trying to draw parallels with IT you are making the same mistake as those who think theft and copyright infringement are the same or those who want physical retaliation against a "cyberwar". In IT we can have bulletproof defences, but IRL sadly we can't. Biological warfare is a very real threat that could destroy the current nuclear peace we live in. We shouldn't make it easier for the bad guys by doing the research for them. Now if this paper turns out to be unharmful it can always be released l

      • In IT we can have bulletproof defences, but IRL sadly we can't.

        You don't sound like you're in IT.

        All software is vulnerable- "secure" is just a way of saying "has not been proven insecure yet".

        • True but you can still have much stronger defenses on a computer. A person is like a computer with a ton of ports open to known-vulnerable services that relies entirely on IDS and antivirus to prevent a complete rooting.

          Or to look at it another way, a properly locked-down computer is like a person in a hazmat suit - except that to the computer it isn't a massive PITA.

          • Or to look at it another way, a properly locked-down computer is like a person in a hazmat suit - except that to the computer it isn't a massive PITA.

            Not a PITA? Tell that to computers who are burdened with a Norton suite installation. :)

            But seriously, there's some truth to what you're saying, but the problem is "proper" lockdown isn't common, and certainly not as easy as buying a suit. The average system, and even the average server maintained by a paid "professional", is quite vulnerable. Those who do properly lock-down are still merely (to really beat this analogy to death...) wearing a hazmat suit with a defective zipper. It's never actually secu

        • by Hentes ( 2461350 )

          All software is vulnerable- "secure" is just a way of saying "has not been proven insecure yet".

          Which is much more than what you can hope for in real life situations.

  • by erroneus ( 253617 ) on Wednesday February 01, 2012 @06:49AM (#38889277) Homepage

    Just look at the fact that the bird flu story is directly after then Angry Birds story. Maybe it's just the fact that I'm waking up at 3am and later about 5-something AM, but I think there's more than just a casual connection here. Look at the facts:

    1. Both about birds.
    2. Both about people unable to control themselves.
    3. One is about a bird virus, the other about birds going viral.

    There is something at play here... not sure what it is just yet...

  • by vikingpower ( 768921 ) on Wednesday February 01, 2012 @07:26AM (#38889453) Homepage Journal
    ...leads even scientific circles astray, to do things modern science would not have lowered itself to do as litte as a mere decade ago. How sad.
    • by oreaq ( 817314 )

      Keeping certain scientific discoveries secret was SOP during the cold war.

    • Well, it's in the name our national defense... so anything goes. What a slippery slope.
    • Worse yet, from what I understand enough information has leaked out so that anyone with the right education can already do this without too much difficulty, so trying to censor it is just whipping up the Streissand Effect.

  • Oh Great. (Score:4, Insightful)

    by headkase ( 533448 ) on Wednesday February 01, 2012 @07:51AM (#38889591)
    Anyone who has half-a-background in virology would have had this stroke of inspiration by now. So what has been accomplished with this ban? Well, lot's of attention has now been brought on the matter to alert the quarter-brained ones.
  • .. before someone crazy enough to release such a virus is capable of creating one. At least up until now, the people capable tend to have a mind reasonable enough to show restraint about it.

    If it gets easier to do, this may no longer be the case, and so there may be only a matter of time. That doesn't mean we have to help it along by publishing the information necessary to create one in public access journals. If censoring these articles delays the inevitable by just a few months, that is either a few month

  • seems to me a collective of respected, well known and conscientous scientists, or even professors, should be the ones determining securuty concerns.

  • by Viol8 ( 599362 ) on Wednesday February 01, 2012 @08:14AM (#38889723) Homepage

    Since they'd kill their own people and snuff out their cause.

    However that still leaves the deranged , which unfortunately there are a lot of on the planet. Though whether they could be deranged enough AND smart enough at the same time to do it is another matter.

    • by Fished ( 574624 )

      So, your theory is that terrorists aren't deranged?!??

      • by Anonymous Coward

        Of course they aren't deranged. Not the leaders, anyway. The actual suicide bombers tend to suffer from severe depression.

        The leaders are businessmen. They are in the business of making money off of insider knowledge ("hey, bad stuff is going to happen on day X, affecting markets Y and Z") and raising money from hatred.

        I mean, look down at Mexico and the blood spilled over drugs. You can call them deranged, but they aren't doing it because they love drugs. They're doing it because they can make money.


      • by L3370 ( 1421413 )
        ...Or that terrorists aren't very smart.

        (brainwashed religious nuts, underwear bomber booking a one-way flight to detroit in the middle of winter with no bags or even a jacket, shoe-bomber, virgins in afterlife...)
    • by Anonymous Coward

      Um, you have heard of "suicide bombers", right?

      • by Viol8 ( 599362 )

        You've heard of soliders "going over the top" to certain death to save their buddies right?

        Sacrificing yourself for what you think is a greater good is fanatical, usually evil and may ultimately be fruitless but its not deranged.

      • You did notice that OBL wasn't on a 911 plane?

    • Since they'd kill their own people and snuff out their cause.

      Yeah, that's why they never suicide bomb their own neighborhoods or taunt superpowers into invading their countries OH WAIT

      • Yeah, that's why they never suicide bomb their own neighborhoods

        Yep, quite so. They generaly move into another neighbohood, and them bomb that other one.

        or taunt superpowers into invading their countries

        You can't blame the terrorists for the US modus operant of terrorizing nations that can't protect themselves. But, anyway, last time I saw, the US didn't have a track record of going after the terrorists' nations (Are you talking about the Taliban? They are from Saudi Arabia). They mostly go after who the te

    • Great novel 1945 by James Herbet:

      OK- complete fiction- but it lays down the scenario. Hitler faced with almost certain defeat releases a virus that kills most people on earth- and of the few survivors- most of them are dying slow deaths. He hoped releasing the virus would deflect his enemies from attacking him.

      OK- now that is complete fiction that obviously never happened. However, there could be a scenario where someone feeling there back is against the wall feels that the best solution is to make every

      • You forgot my personal favourite:

        * Release the virus because there are too many humans to be environmentally healthy for the Earth

        That's one heck of a green solution. Reduce the population by a factor of ten and it'll take a few generations to get back up to where it is now (maybe 50-75 years?). Reduce the population by a factor of 100 and it might be twice that. And if some societies collapse, maybe some industrialized activity will slowdown too.

        (Okay, that's some pretty whacked out thought, but if you hap

    • People who believe that if they die in a holy war they will go to heaven, are deranged.
    • by Hentes ( 2461350 )

      It still could be used as a weapon of mutually assured destruction. You either comply with the terrorists' demands or they release the virus. Even worse, if someone could make a cure for the virus, they could release it without fear of getting infected, then become the leaders of the world as anyone who wants the vaccine would have to ask it from them.

  • ... more government intervention involving suppression of information.
  • Finding a way to unlock and defeat H1N1, et al will continue to be massively underfunded because drones are cooler and my taxes are just too damn high.
  • by dpbsmith ( 263124 ) on Wednesday February 01, 2012 @09:44AM (#38890453) Homepage

    The important atomic bomb secret was that it could be done.

    The important secret here is that "university-based scientists in the Netherlands and Wisconsin created a version of the so-called H5N1 influenza virus that is highly lethal and easily transmissible between ferrets."

    Assume that there are terrorists out there who wish to develop a virological weapon, and have the smarts and the wherewithal to do so. They now know that the H5N1 virus is a good place to start and that there's a winning combination to be found. Holding back the precise blueprint isn't going to delay things much. You have to assume the terrorists are capable of doing research-quality work. It sounds rather as if researchers in the Netherlands and Wisconsin both found answers indepedently. It's quite possible that the terrorists, working on their own, will find something original and better than either of them.

    What suppressing the research might do is make it difficult for other researchers to experiment with protective measures against them.

    • "The important atomic bomb secret was that it could be done"

      There were also significant successes in espionage.

      I claim apples and oranges.

    • Knowing that an atomic bomb was possible motivated other governments to develop one (through espionage or R&D). Keeping the technical details of how to make an atomic bomb secret is one of the reasons that small non-government groups have so far not developed one. In this case I think that making it difficult to find out how to create a super-deadly virus will reduce the chances that small groups will try to create one.

      I think there is a real anti-correlation between well funded competent organizations

  • Streisand effect for would-be bioterrorists?

    • Damn, I was just writing that I'm less worried about Al Qaeda reading scientific journals on bird flu than I am about Al Qaeda reading about censorship over security concerns, titled "Streisand Effect" . I was going to give thanks to Slashdot for killing us all by flagging this for weaponization or Streisand-Andromeda-Flu. Then I got worried that I could be contributing to our doom by making the connection, and trying to word this in pig latin so that it wouldn't give any ideas. Then... you scooped me by
  • I think it's -possible- that garage molecular biology research is just around the corner. I wasn't around for the era of kids in their garages with a computer leading to million dollar startups, but it seems to me like it's going to happen with DNA.

    Affordable PCR machines, or DIY PCR machines [] are starting to appear, fully sequenced genomes are of course available freely online. Anyone with half a brain can design primers and amplify DNA, anyone with a little patience can make any construct they want.

Evolution is a million line computer program falling into place by accident.