Big Data

Will hackers find bioweapon secrets in the cloud?

Big Data

The collision of big data and decoded genetic information is creating a wealth of opportunities for biologists, engineers and public health researchers. However, there is also the potential that advances in computing and genetics are providing potentially catastrophic opportunities for malefactors to hack into research computers to find information that could be adapted to create biological weapons.

This nightmare scenario would have sounded far-fetched a few years ago. But according to panelists at an event sponsored by the Center for Science, Technology, and Security Policy at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, advanced research in virology, genetics, and other areas could result in unintended discoveries with the potential for weaponization. The relatively open culture of academia and the lax cybersecurity posture of many academic and research institution creates vulnerabilities that need to be addressed in the near term, experts said.

In the days of the Manhattan Project, when government marshalled the efforts of research scientists to create a nuclear weapon, security was simpler than it is today, noted Mark Greaves, technical director for analytics in the National Security Directorate at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. Nuclear security evolved from a set of principles that arose from its highly classified origins, and for about 50 years until the rise of the A.Q. Khan network in Pakistan, the world's nuclear powers did a good job of restricting access to nuclear materials.

With biologics, the threat is compounded by the fact that the biotechnology and bioengineering industries have grown up independent of the national security apparatus, and creating an after-the-fact security system based on the nuclear research model -- with closed, restricted data and software systems and custom-built supercomputers -- is impossible. Instead Greaves hopes that cybersecurity best practices could help researchers control access to their data. At the same time, some legal framework will help. Government funders could require advanced cybersecurity controls as a condition of funding biological research housed in a commercial cloud.

Researchers might not know the consequences of their investigations, noted Special Agent Edward You of the FBI's Biological Countermeasures Unit. Research into the genome of an organism could yield unanticipated information about lethal pathogens – and such findings could be discovered only well after such research is widely disseminated.

Robert Sloan, a computer scientist at the University of Illinois, Chicago, is even less optimistic about cybersecurity hygiene. "Breaches are rampant of anything connected to the Internet," he said, noting that even in 2014, some of the most basic security practices are not followed, leading to well-publicized commercial hacks.

"Things are not encrypted. They're not encrypted on the database, and not encrypted over the wire," he said. Moreover, even the best practices can't protect against a motivated nation-state actor. He suggested that researchers working with the most sensitive material think hard about whether it should be online at all.

About the Author

Adam Mazmanian is executive editor of FCW.

Before joining the editing team, Mazmanian was an FCW staff writer covering Congress, government-wide technology policy, health IT and the Department of Veterans Affairs. Prior to joining FCW, Mr. Mazmanian was technology correspondent for National Journal and served in a variety of editorial at B2B news service SmartBrief. Mazmanian started his career as an arts reporter and critic, and has contributed reviews and articles to the Washington Post, the Washington City Paper, Newsday, Architect magazine, and other publications. He was an editorial assistant and staff writer at the now-defunct New York Press and arts editor at the online network in the 1990s, and was a weekly contributor of music and film reviews to the Washington Times from 2007 to 2014.

Click here for previous articles by Mazmanian. Connect with him on Twitter at @thisismaz.

The Fed 100

Save the date for 28th annual Federal 100 Awards Gala.


  • computer network

    How Einstein changes the way government does business

    The Department of Commerce is revising its confidentiality agreement for statistical data survey respondents to reflect the fact that the Department of Homeland Security could see some of that data if it is captured by the Einstein system.

  • Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. Army photo by Monica King. Jan. 26, 2017.

    Mattis mulls consolidation in IT, cyber

    In a Feb. 17 memo, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told senior leadership to establish teams to look for duplication across the armed services in business operations, including in IT and cybersecurity.

  • Image from

    DHS vague on rules for election aid, say states

    State election officials had more questions than answers after a Department of Homeland Security presentation on the designation of election systems as critical U.S. infrastructure.

  • Org Chart Stock Art - Shutterstock

    How the hiring freeze targets millennials

    The government desperately needs younger talent to replace an aging workforce, and experts say that a freeze on hiring doesn't help.

  • Shutterstock image: healthcare digital interface.

    VA moves ahead with homegrown scheduling IT

    The Department of Veterans Affairs will test an internally developed scheduling module at primary care sites nationwide to see if it's ready to service the entire agency.

  • Shutterstock images (honglouwawa & 0beron): Bitcoin image overlay replaced with a dollar sign on a hardware circuit.

    MGT Act poised for a comeback

    After missing in the last Congress, drafters of a bill to encourage cloud adoption are looking for a new plan.

Reader comments

Please post your comments here. Comments are moderated, so they may not appear immediately after submitting. We will not post comments that we consider abusive or off-topic.

Please type the letters/numbers you see above

More from 1105 Public Sector Media Group