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Rogue Biohacking Is Not a Problem 43

Lasrick writes: Although biosecurity experts have long warned that biohackers will eventually engineer pathogens in the same way that computer enthusiasts in the 1970s developed viruses and adware, UC Berkeley's Zian Liu thinks fears about 'rogue biohackers' are overblown. He lists the five barriers that make it much more difficult to bioengineer in your garage than people think, but also suggests some important chokeholds regulators can take to prevent a would-be bioweaponeer from getting lucky.
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Rogue Biohacking Is Not a Problem

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  • The White Plague (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_White_Plague) stays in the Sci Fi realm for now.

  • by NostalgiaForInfinity ( 4001831 ) on Tuesday September 29, 2015 @11:21AM (#50620063)

    Biohacking is not a problem for now: there are large practical hurdles, as the article points out. People may argue (correctly) that these will eventually be overcome, so we don't know what may have to be done eventually. But the political question is whether anything needs to be done domestically right now, and the answer is no. That will likely remain the case for another decade or two.

    The biggest bioweapons threat likely comes from well-financed terrorist organizations and religious cults. They do have the resources to get all the equipment, can mobilize dozens of trained professionals to work on a problem, and often operate in places where there is little government oversight to begin with. But that's already the CIA's responsibility, and it has a lot of leeway in dealing with such threats.

  • Yet one more reason (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Stellian ( 673475 ) on Tuesday September 29, 2015 @11:29AM (#50620119)

    ...to colonize Mars. We probably have another 50 years of relative safety. But it's clear that the human body is a nightmare from a information security point of view: it will accept almost any rogue DNA and happily incorporate it in it's own cells and replicate it, like an Win98 autoruns any USB drive inserted. The attackers of such a system have a definite advantage, defenders cannot close the autorun functionality without dramatically re-engineer the human being. So all it takes is one mad genius with the right tools to create an unstoppable, airborne, deadly virus.

  • by gurps_npc ( 621217 ) on Tuesday September 29, 2015 @11:34AM (#50620151) Homepage
    At heart, most of the issues he said can be described as follows:

    Bioweapon creation is so deadly, that any attempt to create by a civilian it will most likely kill you before you succeed, unless you take expensive counter measures that will act as red flags, telling everyone what you are trying to do.

    It does not prevent ISIL and similar groups from attempting it. They have sufficient money and size to hide their attempts, just like the USA and USSR did during the cold war.

    • by LWATCDR ( 28044 )

      The US biological program was pretty well known. The US ended the offensive part of it unilaterally in 1969 and and all the weapons were destroyed by 1972.
      Thanks to President Nixon.

  • Famous Last Words (Score:5, Interesting)

    by JustAnotherOldGuy ( 4145623 ) on Tuesday September 29, 2015 @11:39AM (#50620179)

    Famous Last Words....

    "Don't worry, it's unloaded..."

    "Relax, we have the right-of-way..."

    "It's okay, I'm sure this rope will hold our weight..."

    "Don't worry, rogue biohacking is not a problem..."

  • by Kjella ( 173770 ) on Tuesday September 29, 2015 @11:51AM (#50620249) Homepage

    For example, we had 28,000+ cases of Ebola in west Africa recently so for a moderate effort you could have a fairly lethal disease. If you could manage to mix that with an airborne virus, that's a pretty potent killer. Unless you got a quite expensive airtight system that probably means you're infected, but you'll be a slow suicide bomber. Just ride the subway, maybe take a flight or three through major hubs and for bonus points kill yourself instead of going to the hospital so they never find patient zero and the places you've been. Good luck putting New York in quarantine.

    • by Anonymous Coward

      Ebola is self-restricting because of its short, non-contagious incubation. Patients become sick fast, which hinders their capacity to travel, and they're only contagious when sick. Even in a scenario like today's, where almost all the planet is accessible in hours via airplane, its spread out of Africa was minimal. There are desirable characteristics for a potent bioweapon and almost immediate symptoms is not one of them - it means the attack will have minimal impact because it will be detected and curtaile

    • There is still sufficient problems. Take the Bird Flu back when we were in panic mode. Just because you concocted a disease that's lethal doesn't mean that it's easily transmittable. So in the process of trying to make an Air Born Ebola you end up infecting yourself long before you make it an easily transmissible version. Sure you could be a slow moving disease bomb, but if the infection rate is like how the Bird Flu was when you practically had to get bird feces on your hands then put it in your mouth cros
  • by cirby ( 2599 ) on Tuesday September 29, 2015 @11:55AM (#50620271)

    Glossed over in the story: "It's not that hard if you know what you're doing and have some money."

    A few notes...

    "It could cost $30,000 for a very basic setup." Never mind that someone with that level of skill could save that much in a couple of years. I know people who spent that much on sports equipment in a similar timeframe. Not all hackers are dirt-poor. Or they could get a middle-management job at a distributor and steal a few of the more expensive pieces. Some people have patience, you know.

    "It's very hard to do the really subtle and clever things, like drug delivery bacteria." Conversely, it's nowhere near that hard to breed a better form of anthrax, not to mention a whole lot of other microbes. Anthrax is EASY to get - it's found on every continent, and there are regular outbreaks around the world. The same goes for many other nasty diseases.

    "You need high-level biocontainment to be safe." But that's not hard to do for small samples, and relies on 1950s-era tech.

    "You need very specific training to do it right." Well, thank heavens that we don't have hundreds of people with that sort of training. Oh, wait, we do. Well, at least 100% of them are sane. Er...

    "You can't test on monkeys." But you can test on small, isolated communities of humans. By the time anyone notices it was man-made, it's too late. Nothing will happen if the bugs don't work, and if they DO work, it will take more than a while for the government to catch on.

    The only issue is production-level amounts - making a few ounces for a major anthrax attack, for example. You don't have to make the cool spore/long-term dispersal agents for this purpose.

    Generally, the big blind spot is "someone planning this will want to do it exactly like 1970s germ warfare types did, with tons of long-duration anthrax spores and well-tested lethal strains." Nope, not any more than mad bombers will all make highly-engineered explosives with anti-tamper devices and multiple remote detonators. They'll cut corners, take stupid risks, make a lot of mistakes, and a lot of them will die at home.

    But it only takes one.

  • by bkr1_2k ( 237627 ) on Tuesday September 29, 2015 @12:07PM (#50620339)

    So the entire article boils down to "money is the only real barrier". The rest is just values of money that people are willing to accept to overlook the rules.

  • Come again? (Score:2, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward

    in the same way that computer enthusiasts in the 1970s developed viruses and adware

    I might grant you the first, but not the second, and it turns out that the real problems developed not from computer enthusiasts, but dedicated actors with a profit motive.

    Which should frighten you even more when considering biologicals and companies like Monsanto and Eli Lilly.

    • I wish I had mod points on the above. The other thing to ask is have Monsanto and Eli Lilly and the like already done this and their disease is obesity and diabetes?
  • I violated the rule and went ahead and read the article.

    What he says is: Only rich assholes can do bioweapons.

    • by Anonymous Coward

      Problem is, there are a lot of rich assholes in the world.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    Back when I was in high school -- early 1970s -- microbiology was one of my hobbies. Not that I was trying to grow anything nasty (in fact, the main reason I got into it at all was because my girl friend was interested in it.) But we did find a lot of low-cost ways to do things.

    For example, TFA says "For instance, many sleep with test tubes under their armpits to avoid buying expensive incubators." That's fucking ridiculous. My incubator was a box lined with foam (like from a cheap cooler) and foil,

    • For example, TFA says "For instance, many sleep with test tubes under their armpits to avoid buying expensive incubators." That's fucking ridiculous. My incubator was a box lined with foam (like from a cheap cooler) and foil, warmed by a small incandescent bulb controlled by a dimmer switch. Didn't even bother with a thermostat, just adjusted the dimmer until it maintained the right temperature. These days I'd do it with a thermistor and an arduino to maintain temperature within 0.1 degrees.

      That's crazy! Te

  • This is exactly the kind of threat analysis I would expect from someone who worked as an undergraduate researcher for 13 months in a biolab focused on renewable energy. Go ahead and parse that thought a bit.

    How about this: Make sure that when we train someone with all the skills necessary to weaponize biology, we actually have something productive for them to do. It's much better to try to encourage positive behavior from our scientists through incentives (i.e. encourage good jobs, not just endless traini

    • by cfalcon ( 779563 )

      I was thinking it's the kind of threat analysis you would do if you wanted people to come to the conclusion that it's an imminent threat that needs government oversight at all levels and in all places in order to be safe. Can't trust people, you know. This article said you could, but they had armpit incubators. Ludicrous points. Best monitor.

  • I would think that if you have sufficiently crazy dedicated lab technicians, some of the lab work could be done by volunteers willing to sacrifice themselves for the cause. It's somewhat like it is for bomb-makers (although much more risky.)

    Performing experiments on primates isn't a problem - especially if you don't care much for the scientific method and want results you can compare with controls. Keeping the experiments confined to the infidel sect is a problem though.

    Creating a novel organism isn't nec

  • ... sometimes literally.

    Like TFA says (with immense understatement), "bio-weapons hardly ever work the first time." More accurately, having a complex bio-weapon like ebolapox or birdthrax work the first time you tried it would be like writing a couple million lines of C code and have it compile cleanly and execute more or less correctly the first time without any testing.

    Also, if you want to survive the global plague you would be unleashing you would have to develop and test a vaccine as well.

    I suspect str

Research is what I'm doing when I don't know what I'm doing. -- Wernher von Braun