The successful decoding of the human genome was a phenomenal scientific achievement. For the first time in the world’s history, the entire genetic code of the human species was fully available to scientific researchers. The fantastic accomplishment will provide untold advances in medicine and hold the potential to vastly decrease human suffering and illness.
But just as hackers cleverly and nefariously attack computer code, so too may it be possible–and even likely–that the human genomic code will face challenges from those with criminal intent. In effect, the human genome is merely another operating system waiting to be hacked. While information technology relies upon ones and zeros to deliver its coded instructions, the genome uses a DNA-base pair system made up of four smaller components known as adenine (A) which forms a base pair with thymine (T), as does guanine (G) with cytosine (C).
The entire field of genetic engineering is founded upon the theory that these base pairs may be manipulated for the betterment of humanity. But as costs to access this technology drop dramatically, bioengineering techniques are becoming available to the masses. As such, so called “bio-hackers” are already at work tinkering with the human genome.
Whole new organizations focused on the practice have been developed including the International Genetically Engineered Machine competition (iGEM), which is dedicated to the study and practice of Synthetic Biology. College student teams are given a kit of biological parts at the beginning of the summer from the Registry of Standard Biological Parts. Working at their own schools over the summer, they use these parts and new parts of their own design to build biological systems and operate them in living cells. In effect, they are ‘biohackers’ who are exploring and manipulating biological systems for scientific purposes.
Just as information technology spurred a generation into action in the latter part of the 20th century, so too will biotechnology play an increasingly important role in the 21st. Given the numbers of college students with access to the “Registry of Standard Biological Parts,” how long will it be before one of these students, perhaps a maladjusted drop out, begins to focus his activities on the less positive social aspects of biohacking?
Given the profitable and effective business practices utilized by transnational organized cyber crime gangs, how long will it be before they are willing to transfer their knowledge to their emerging colleagues: the bio-hackers? What forms of biological crime might be possible in the coming years. For example, knowing that a particular individual has a particular genetic defect could certainly aid in targeting him or her for a homicide, were this information known and readily available.
What concerns, if any, should society have about these possibilities? Not only can the human genome be manipulated for criminal purposes, but as information technology is increasingly inserted into human biological organisms, a whole other subset of bio-hacking has been enabled, as mentioned elsewhere on Future Crimes. Perhaps now is the time for a legal, technological, security and public policy debate about these issues before the next generation technological threat is upon us.