What keeps me up: CRISPR and hyperconnectivity

by Deanna Zammit

“What keeps me up at night” is a series where top security experts reveal the threats, technologies, and tactics that keep their industry constantly on its toes. As regular citizens, we don’t know the half of what’s going at the highest levels of national and international security (the true volume would probably induce mass panic). These experts can help give us a better idea of the type of threats we face, and how we as a society can protect against them.

Ken Wheatley is the Founder and Principal Advisor of Royal Security Group LLC, a security, business management, and litigation support consulting practice. Some of his clients include: Sony, Staples, EasyTurf, VisiQuate, Seattle Police Department, Avalon Capital Group, Rady Children’s Hospital, San Diego Chamber of Commerce, and numerous law firms. He is the former President of the San Diego Chapter of the Forensic Expert Witness Association and was a member of the National Board.

What is the most pressing security threat that faces us today?

It seems that most of the press overage regarding IoT (Internet of Things) revolves around the benefits of hyperconnectivity and the futuristic capabilities that we’ll all have at our fingertips or voices. The age of the Jetsons is finally within grasp, it would seem. But, despite the levels of concern people have about privacy – and the passage of various laws to enforce protection of personal data – people are either unaware of the pitfalls that come with living in a pervasive connected world or they’re blinded by the perceived benefits and convenience. Issues such as more easily hacked personal information, hacking into home video surveillance or computer cameras, taking over vehicle systems, locking access to your home or business, etc. aren’t discussed as much.

What is the biggest security threat on the horizon that we don’t know about?

While some people (and very, very few outside of the scientific community) know about the benefits of the CRISPR gene editing technology, I believe that the vast majority of people are unaware of the terrible downside the technology poses in the wrong hands. CRISPR allows scientist to alter the genetic make-up of humans and the biosphere. And some efforts are underway to de-extinct prehistoric animals, such as the woolly mammoth. What would that do to our ecosystem? Existing laws, dating back to 1990, have proven to not be the deterrent, on an international level, that one would hope. The recent prison sentencing of He Jiankui, the Chinese scientist who created the world’s first gene-edited babies, is a perfect illustration of the rogue nature of individuals to misuse the technology. It’s not beyond consideration that a government, or criminal organization, could use the technology to create drug-resistant diseases or bioweapons. Even the co-creator of the tool, Jennifer Doudna, has expressed concerns in podcasts and articles about the potential misuse of the technology.

What can we do to address these threats now and in the future?

Concerning IoT, there needs to be far more coverage and education about what the world will look like, especially when juxtaposed between the rich and poor, and how people’s lives could be impacted, so that individuals and companies can build in better safeguards. Or perhaps greatly limit the technology in their home or work spaces

As for CRISPR, I don’t have an answer, given that it’s a tool that’s now available worldwide, and we’re at the mercy of the benevolence of people to do the right things – which we know how that’s worked out before. Some have said that the FDA will protect us in the U.S., but as the Jiankui case illustrates, the Health Commission of China wasn’t in a position to stop him.

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