Biological and Chemical Weapons

Wall Street Journal Essay Adapted from "The Future of Violence"

By Benjamin Wittes, Gabriella Blum
Monday, April 20, 2015, 1:44 PM

The Wall Street Journal over the weekend ran this essay adapted from our new book, The Future of Violence: Robots and Germs, Hackers and Drones—---Confronting A New Age of Threat. It opens,

You walk into your shower and see a spider. You don’t know whether it is venomous—or whether it is even a real spider. It could be a personal surveillance mini-drone set loose by your nosy next-door neighbor, who may be monitoring the tiny octopod robot from her iPhone 12. A more menacing possibility: Your business competitor has sent a robotic attack spider, bought from a bankrupt military contractor, to take you out. Your assassin, who is vacationing in Provence, will direct the spider to shoot an infinitesimal needle containing a lethal dose of poison into your left leg—and then self-destruct.

Meanwhile, across town, an anarchist molecular-biology graduate student is secretly working to re-create the smallpox virus, using ordinary laboratory tools and gene-splicing equipment available online. Not content to merely revive an extinct virus to which the general population has no immunity, he uses public-source academic research to make it more lethal. Then he infects himself and, just as his symptoms start, strolls around the airport to infect as many people as he can.

These scenarios may sound fantastical, but they are neither especially improbable nor particularly futuristic. Insect-size drones are busily being developed throughout the defense establishment, in academic facilities and by private firms. Slightly larger drones are widely available for purchase on the open market, some already rigged with cameras. Making such drones lethal is just the next step, and it isn’t that complicated.

As for our anarchist molecular biologist, the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity said back in 2006 that the “technology for synthesizing DNA is readily accessible, straightforward and a fundamental tool used in current biological research.” That was a lifetime ago in scientific terms.

The technological platforms associated with robotics, genetics and synthetic biology are enriching every facet of our society. But as President Barack Obama recently lamented about cybersecurity, “one of the great paradoxes of our time” is that “the very technologies that empower us to do great good can also be used to undermine us and inflict great harm.”