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Biodata’s Latest Threats

The new field of cyberbiosecurity seeks to protect an increasingly connected world.

Written by Philip Baker
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Learn how the rapid development of DNA sequencing in recent years and the internet-based technologies that enable it has arrived with new threats, vulnerabilities, and potential vectors of attack for bad actors seeking to profit through cybercrime.

About Nate Evans, PhD

Position
Cyber Operations, Analysis, and Research Lead, Argonne National Laboratory
Program
Master of Science in Threat and Response Management

Along with the benefits of our computerized and connected world have arrived new threats, vulnerabilities, and ways for bad actors to profit through cybercrime. From hospital information systems and electrical grids to personal data found online, cyber-vulnerable technologies dependent on cloud services and the internet require constant vigilance and security as advancements in technology open up new vectors for malicious attacks.

About Jennifer Fowler, MS

Position
Cyber Security Analyst, Argonne National Laboratory

Cyberbiosecurity and Protecting the Bioeconomy

With the rapid development of DNA sequencing in recent years and the internet-based technologies that enable it, scientific exploration surrounding the life sciences has now become vulnerable too. Cyberbiosecurity aims to understand and reduce the risks of conducting research using these technologies while ensuring that the confidentiality, integrity, and availability of scientific data is upheld. 

Focused on protecting the bioeconomy in particular, which, through advancements in pharmaceutical, renewable energy, and agricultural research, accounts for $4 trillion annually—or 25% of gross domestic product—the primary task of cyberbiosecurity involves identifying vulnerabilities and protecting potential vectors of attack.

“Sectors having a profitable impact on the bioeconomy produce assets—such as intellectual property—whose protection becomes of paramount concern,” says Jennifer Fowler, a cybersecurity analyst at Argonne. “We want to make sure that we have things put in place like encryption and authenticity that not only prevent people from stealing the intellectual property but which also prevent someone from altering that data for nefarious uses.”

Biodata and Cyberbiosecurity with Social Media

An area of particular concern relates to the connections between personal data and one’s biodata. Since so much of the data we collect has a biological aspect to it—from healthcare data to shopping data—where is the line between personal data and biodata—or cybersecurity and cyberbiosecurity?

“As all the data elements continue to grow and converge, and as people willingly give data up about themselves, whether through Facebook or other social media, it’s definitely a concern from privacy perspectives what organizations will do with that data,” says Nate Evans, a cyber operations lead at Argonne National Laboratory. “And there aren’t, at least in the United States, effective standards and laws that protect against mechanisms like that, whereas in Europe and other countries you do see more stringent vigilance associated with that.”

Evans questions our willingness to trust our information to private companies like Google and Facebook, while we’re often extremely reluctant to share similar data with the government. At least there, he notes, there exist laws and people who can be held directly accountable.

The Challenges and Future of Cyberbiosecurity

Looking ahead, the evolving field of cyberbiosecurity will continue to present an array of complex challenges. From potential biological vulnerabilities open to exploitation to traditional information technology vulnerabilities similarly open to attack, the fact that research today requires the internet to fuel innovation means, at the same time, the opening of an ever-expanding number of possibilities through which bad actors can infiltrate and access sensitive areas of data.

“Overall, we really see the field of cyberbiosecurity continuing to grow and continuing to focus on and emphasize particularly vulnerable areas,” says Evans. “We also expect to discover a lot of gaps in the upcoming years and potential areas for research, so we’re very interested in continuing to evaluate where we can apply cybersecurity principles in order to solve the problem or mitigate the risk associated with areas within the bioeconomy.”

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