Tuesday, July 08, 2003

An update to the posting below on biological terrorism as a possible more dangerous successor to computer hacking: Ed Felten recounts an interesting conversation he had with "a hotshot mo-bio professor" about just this comparison. "Each of us," he writes, "tried to reassure the other that really large-scale malicious attacks of the type we knew best (cyber- for me, bio- for him) were harder to carry out, and less likely, than commonly believed."

Certainly, it's reassuring that at least one top molecular biologist pooh-poohs the threat of molecular bioterrorism, considering it much more difficult than non-experts like me might expect. And I'm prepared to believe that right now, at least, the professor is right. (That would certainly explain the lack of successful large-scale attacks--despite the ominous example of the anthrax mailings of 2001.)

But then, bringing down the nation's information infrastructure with an Internet worm would have been extremely difficult, too--ten years ago, when very little of it was easily accessible via the Internet. Likewise, my fears center not on bioterrorists using today's techniques, but rather on the terrorists of twenty years from now, when genetic engineering technology may well have matured to the point where Henry C. Kelly's doomsday scenario involving "an inexperienced graduate student with a few thousand dollars worth of equipment" is plausible.

I know just how well-prepared computer scientists were a decade ago for the rise of Internet-related security threats--that is, not at all. And judging by the nonchalance of Felten's interlocutor, biotechnologists are in roughly the same state of denial. This time, though, it's our lives, not just our data, that are in danger.

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