The Dark Side of CRISPR

By Kathryn Ziden

The Tsarnaev brothers, who carried out the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings, built their pressure cooker bombs using instructions found in al Qaeda’s English-language, online magazine Inspire. In the same 2010 issue of Inspire, it states, “For those mujahid brothers with degrees in microbiology or chemistry lays the greatest opportunity and responsibility. For such brothers, we encourage them to develop a weapon of mass destruction.” Although the bombs that were detonated and discovered in New York and New Jersey this past weekend were also pressure cooker bombs, what if it had been a bio-engineered, deadly pathogen? New, inexpensive and readily available gene-editing techniques could provide an easy way for terrorists to stage bioterrorist attacks.

CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) is a novel gene-editing technique that has the potential to do everything from ending diseases like cystic fibrosis and muscular dystrophy to curing cancer. CRISPR also has the power to both bring back extinct species and cause living species to go extinct. There is hot debate currently within the scientific and policy communities about the ethical ramifications of this powerful tool and how it should be regulated. However, there is almost no discussion within these communities of the security risks that CRISPR poses, or the scary scenarios that could result from unintended consequences or its misuse.

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence’s “Worldwide Threat Assessment” listed gene-editing techniques like CRISPR on its list of weapons of mass destruction for the first time in 2016. Here, we list some actors that could use CRISPR to create a bioweapon.

Non-state actors: Terrorism specialists have warned that obtaining a biological weapon is much easier than obtaining a nuclear or chemical weapon, given the relative ease by which components can be purchased and developed. Terror groups intent on developing biological weapons could use existing members’ skills, or send recruits to receive adequate education in the biological sciences, similar to al Qaeda’s method of sending attackers to train in U.S. flight schools prior to 9/11.

Rogue scientists: Disgruntled or mentally ill scientists could easily use CRISPR to mount an attack, similar to the 2001 anthrax attacks. However, unlike other deadly pathogens, CRISPR is widely available and requires no security clearance or mental health screening for access.

Do-it-yourself biohackers: Do-it-yourself (DIY) scientist movements are growing across the country. DIY centers now offer CRISPR-specific classes and DIY CRISPR kits are inexpensive and widely available for sale online for amateur scientists working out of their basements. Some websites sell in vivo, injection-ready CRISPR kits for creating transgenic rats (rats included), and directly advertise to “full service” and “DIY” users.

Religious groups: The first and single largest bioterrorist attack in the U.S. was perpetrated by followers of an Indian mystical leader, infecting 751 people with salmonella bacteria in 1984. In 1993, the doomsday cult Aum Shinrikyo attempted an anthrax attack in Tokyo, but mistakenly used a non-virulent strain.

Foreign governments: The development of bioweapons is banned under the 1975 Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention; however many countries, including China, Russia and Pakistan are widely believed to have bioweapons programs. Each of these countries are also actively using CRISPR in scientific research.

The large, potential impacts of gene-editing techniques combined with the low barriers to obtaining the technology make it ripe for unintended and intended misuse. In order to address the security challenges of this emerging technology, all stakeholders need to act.

The scientific community can add value by:

  • Shifting their focus from ethical concerns to security concerns, or at least give security concerns equal footing in their discussions.
  • Engaging with the intelligence and policy communities to identify real-world scenarios that could be actualized by the actors discussed above.

Regulatory bodies can counter the risks poses by the unintended use or potential misuse of gene-editing techniques by:

  • Designating all precision gene-editing enzyme systems as controlled substances, similar to radioactive isotopes or illicit drug precursors used in research laboratories, and putting use-verification and accounting procedures into place.
  • Registering, licensing and certifying all laboratory-based and DIY users of CRISPR. Gene-editing technology users could also be required to undergo National Agency Check with Inquiries background investigations.

The intelligence community can lead the efforts of countering more serious, bioterrorism threats by:

  • Tracking all gene-editing kits or other system-specific plasmids or components, including materials already purchased during the current pre-regulation timeframe.
  • Tracking all users of gene-editing technologies, specifically looking for rogue or DIY users who fail to register, individuals actively seeking to buy kits through the black market, or individuals searching for CRISPR instructions or other relevant information online.

These recommendations are just some of the actions that could be taken to minimize risks of gene-editing technologies. CRISPR is a powerful technology that is capable of creating a gene drive that can result in mass sterilization and extinction. If it can be used to kill off a species of mosquito, then it can be used to kill off the human race. It is time to think of these gene-editing techniques in terms of an existential threat.


The Power of Imagination

By Charles Mueller

Sunday was an emotional day.  It was the 15th anniversary of one of the most traumatic days in US history, the anniversary of 9/11.  That day is burned into the memories of the American people because its events defied what we believed was possible.  We will never forget because we will always remember the day the unthinkable became reality.

The official story that came out of the investigations of 9/11 to explain how it was able to occur highlighted a failure to imagine the kinds of horrors terrorists could unleash upon our nation.  In some ways this finding was ironic because it was our imagination that helped us land on the moon, invent the Internet, and harness the atom, all accomplishments in our climb to become the world’s only remaining superpower at the time.  On 9/11 though it somehow became our weakness.  By failing to take serious what might seem impossible, by failing to imagine the extremes people might go to hurt us, we created an opportunity that could be exploited.  The sad reality of that day is that many people saw the signs of what was coming, but we still chose to ignore it; we chose to refrain from imagining it could ever take place.

That day showed the real the power of imagination.  If you can imagine it, you can often make it real.  The terrorists imagined all that took place on 9/11 and because they believed, were able to inflict a wound on this country that may never fully heal.  As we move forward, continuing to recover from that day, we must never forget this lesson; we must never forget the power of imagination.

Today we live at a time where what was once the imagination of science fiction writers is now becoming reality.  We are on the cusp of being able to engineer all types of life, including ourselves, to have the traits and properties we desire.  We are on the verge of potentially creating sentient life fundamentally different than our own.  We have tools today that are enabling our imagination to translate into reality.  As amazing as the future can be, days like 9/11 remind us that there exist those that will ultimately try to use these new technologies and their imaginations to make the future worse.  We have to remember this as we start thinking about how to manage this brave new world.

In order to ensure the future is better than tomorrow, we have to use our imagination to consider all the different ways it can go right and wrong.  We have to imagine the future we want and then work together to figure out the right path to get there.  We cannot afford another failure of imagination moving forward because S&T has simply made the stakes too high.  Let’s use the power of imagination to create a better world and ensure 9/11 is a day we remember, not relive.

The Smart Grid Needs to be a Safe Grid

By T.J. Kasperbauer

Imagine you wake up one morning to discover that your entire city has lost power. What would you guess is the most likely cause? A tornado? Equipment malfunction? Terrorist attack?

Increasingly, American’s energy grid is under threat from cyberattacks. This is not a new problem, but so far the solutions have been inadequate. In order to improve our energy grid, we must build cybersecurity into its main functions.

One way the U.S. is currently trying to combat cyberattacks is through development of the Smart Grid. Under Smart Grid, energy production and distribution are decentralized. Decentralization creates redundancies that help prevent a single attack from taking down the whole grid. Devices on the Smart Grid are also in constant communication, which enhances detection of attacks and outages.

The main problem with the Smart Grid is that its interconnectedness produces vulnerabilities. By putting all devices in two-way communication with each other, the Smart Grid increases the number of possible entry points for attacks. Moreover, the Smart Grid connects the energy grid to lots of other “grids.” For instance, household electricity usage can be monitored on the internet. Foreign or domestic adversaries—including lone wolf hackers—could potentially use this sort of connectability to influence the Smart Grid.

Some attempts have been made to address this problem. For instance, DARPA is currently installing automated cybersecurity defense systems into power grids. And the Department of Energy routinely funds projects aimed at testing and improving the cybersecurity of the energy grid ($34 million in August 2016). There are also published guidelines for protecting energy cybersecurity (in 2010 and 2015). These are all important and should continue, but must be better integrated into the Smart Grid as it develops.

In order to preserve the benefits of the Smart Grid, we must build security alongside connectability. This requires better anticipation of future problems in order to design security into grid functions.

Winning Hearts and Minds

By Charles Mueller

Winning hearts and minds is how you lead a country, it is key to winning wars, and it is what good governance depends on in a rational society.  If you do not have the hearts and minds of the people, then you cannot lead them or protect them.  People’s hearts and minds are won by giving them something to believe in, giving them something to trust.  When people believe that you will help create the reality they hope to see, they give their hearts and minds to you.  This is something all people who want power understand because power is controlling the hearts and minds of the people.  Today, the hearts and minds of the rational people around the world are being controlled by an irrational idea, that trepidation  is normal, that terrorism is acceptable, that we are not free to live without fear.  That fear was perpetuated earlier this week when Daesh carried out a series of cowardly attacks on the innocent people in the capital of Belgium.

The hearts of people are won by gaining their trust, by capturing their loyalty.  Terrorists groups like Daesh are winning the hearts of rational people, people like the teenager Maysa from Belgium who drank the Daesh kool-aid.  The heart is not always a rational thing, it is fueled by emotion and responds most greatly to fear.  We are losing the hearts of the rational people of the world somehow.  The heart is most susceptible to change when it is living in fear.  Ironically, by creating an unstable world the terrorists gain the hearts of the rational people.

The minds of people are sometimes much harder to win.  The more educated, the more skeptical, the more logical a mind, the harder it is to win it over with cheap tricks.  Maysa’s rational mind is the only reason she is not a terrorist fighting with the Daesh today.  They might have tricked her heart, but they could not trick her mind.  This is the power of rational thought, the power of science.  When we understand our world better, in a more scientific way, we can control our hearts and put our loyalty and trust in places that are truly safe.  This is why democracy works; because rational people invest their hearts and their minds in leaders who are rational and logical too.

Our rational leaders are not capturing the hearts and minds of the people anymore.  The terrorists have put fear in our hearts and minds and they are beginning to turn us into irrational, illogical people.  If we become that, we’ve lost the world we have spilt so much blood, sweat and tears over trying to create; a world of free thought, of opportunity, of freedom and justice for all.  Trust and loyalty are inspired by action.  Rational people also require that action be logical.  Every war, be it WWII or the most recent War on Terror, is fought over the hearts and minds of people.  I hate to think that right now we are losing the war for the hearts and minds of the world.

Cyberizing Covert Action

Jenn Lato

The 21st century presents a host of new challenges to national security. The United States is no longer embroiled in a Cold War, and the current strategic environment entails threats that are complex and remarkably more sophisticated. Terrorism, transnational organized crime, cyber crime, and weapons of mass destruction are examples of these threats, and challenge the state in exceedingly new ways. However, the evolution of national and global security threats does not necessitate entirely new security measures. In particular, covert action has advanced with the national security demands of the 21st century. It will continue to play a role as a key instrument of U.S. foreign policy and national security, and in the digital age, covert action is essential for preventing and thwarting threats via the cyber domain.

Throughout the Cold War era, the U.S. Government undertook a variety of covert actions against a Soviet hegemony and leftist, often militant, political movements that posed a threat to U.S. national security. Covert operations to combat these threats were met with varying degrees of success, and have resulted in a re-examination of covert action as either a necessary policy instrument or an antiquated Cold War phenomenon. For instance, throughout the 1960s and early 1970s, the CIA used financial backing and anti-communist propaganda to overthrow the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende. While considered a success, the overthrow of Allende gave rise to the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, whose notoriously brutal regime put a black mark on U.S. covert operations in South America. Moreover, in 1987 the Iran-Contra affair raised legal questions over the use of covert action, specifically, covert action that is not congressionally authorized. However, covert action has not been eliminated. It has kept pace with advances in technology, and its importance is both strong and increasing. For instance in 2010 Stuxnet, a U.S.-Israeli computer virus, successfully destroyed 1/5 of Iran’s nuclear centrifuges at the Natanz Nuclear Plant. In March 2015, Adan Garar, a member of Al-Shabaab’s intelligence outfit, was successfully killed by a U.S. drone strike. Therefore, the question is not whether covert action will continue, but how will it be used in the digital age?

Today, almost everything is in digital format. A person posts his or her personal information, opinions and ideas on social media platforms. As demonstrated by the Arab Spring, social media platforms such as Twitter can be used as an outlet to transform an idea into a revolution. Rather than place covert propaganda in newspapers and on the radio, the CIA today could foster political influence through Facebook or Twitter. Social media allows propaganda to be distributed to across the globe, and its transmission time is extremely faster than Cold War communication. This means that not only is covert action evolving, its continued effectiveness has redefined the way in which the intelligence community operates.

Cyber security is also expanding the nature of covert action. Anything that has an Internet connection is at risk, and the potential for state and non-state actors to leverage this presents both new opportunities and threats. Therefore, while covert action may involve paramilitary conflict or foreign direct financial assistance, we will see an increase and shift toward cyber attacks. The U.S. could be faced with or initiate an attack directed at critical infrastructure, used to destabilize a financial system, or could involve the insertion of malware into a government computer system. These covert actions hardly existed in the Cold War era.

Given the current nature of conflict, covert action will continue to be a foreign policy instrument, and its use in the cyber domain will extend into the foreseeable future. Its value did not end with the Cold War, and the need for it is expanding with developments in technology and cyber security. To be successful, covert action must remain in line with strategic policy goals, and strike a balance between national security and an integrated international system of governance and laws. Covert action will continue throughout the 21st century and into the 22nd and such, the U.S. Government must continue to cyberize the covert world.

On Military Robots

Patrick Cheetham

The Department of Defense is shrinking funding to military robots while robots are becoming more capable and ubiquitous every day. The US needs to invest in developing these technologies and we should look towards the future in ways that keep us superior and counter potential uses against our own systems.

Robots afford considerable advantages in warfare by extending military reach and power projection. They also change the risk-benefit calculation for successful operations. Generally, a robot can be defined as a machine that has some degree of autonomy and the ability to sense, perceive, and act in or on its environment. Yet, this definition and basic understanding of robots does not adequately describe the revolution occurring in robotic technologies that are truly transforming industries and national security as we know it.

DoD funding in recent years has been sluggish, while the utility of military robots has increased. From a high in 2011 of $6.6 billion, the proposed 2014 budget for unmanned systems was just about $4.1 billion. This significant decrease is counterintuitive to the increasing capabilities that robotics provide for DoD. The most newsworthy robots are unmanned aerial vehicles, which grab headlines for their ability to loiter, surveil, and kill targets (for example, they are being used in the current campaign against ISIL). Robots are not just doing dull, dangerous, or dirty tasks; they are dominating the air and quickly becoming a force multiplier. On the ground or in the maritime environment, they inspect and disarm IEDs, carry supplies, enable communications, and use EW to jam and spoof other machines. Robots with stronger artificial intelligence, medical and surgical capabilities, and the ability to incapacitate high value targets could provide even more function for the warfighter in the future.

The ubiquity of robotic technologies in commercial, civil, and national security sectors challenges the US held monopoly on military specific robots. It is estimated that at least 75 to 87 countries are investing in military unmanned systems. Military investment in the Asian region alone will grow by 67% to 2018, totaling almost $2.4 billion per year. A low barrier to entry for makers, nation states, and terrorists is possible because of decreasing costs of enabling technologies. Robert Work and Shawn Brimley point out that advanced computing, big data, autonomy, artificial intelligence, miniaturization, and small high-density power systems in the consumer and service industries advance the development of military robots. A common robotic operating system, cheaper hardware, and 3D printing also contribute to accessibility. Widespread knowledge and availability have given nefarious actors the ability to use machines. For example, the terrorist group Hezbollah has successfully fielded drones and plots using UAVs strapped with bombs. Most strikingly, China has “developed” UAVs with uncanny resemblance to the US-made MQ-9 Reaper.

Technology superiority is a cornerstone of US national security strategy but is being challenged in the field of robotics by decreased budgets and technological diffusion. DoD has decreased investments in robots even though the costs and limits of manned systems make unmanned systems a wise acquisition decision. Robots can replace tasks and enhance our own superiority with an optimum balance between humans and machines. Smartly investing in military robot systems of the future will help the US maintain the technical edge it needs.