Keeping Science in the Right Hands

Policing the New Biological Frontier

Gel electrophoresis of nucleic acids.
Gel electrophoresis of nucleic acids. (Petr Jan Juračka / Photopedia)

Ongoing research and discoveries in the life sciences -- the latest and most promising involving synthetic biology -- have led to extraordinary advances that will benefit society. But criminals and terrorists could manipulate such advances to disrupt public safety and national security. Since its founding in 1923, Interpol has learned that the most effective way to keep up with a constantly changing world is by engaging law enforcement and consulting experts in its 190 member countries. Effective solutions to new global security threats require the exchange of information and intelligence. As the methods criminals employ have developed, so, too, has Interpol’s capacity for deploying new strategies and offering assistance to stop them.

To reduce the risks associated with the potential abuse of scientific developments, researchers and the policymakers in national governments and international entities responsible for the oversight of such research have to understand how criminals could use these emerging technologies. Through innovations in the field of synthetic biology, scientists can now design and engineer new biological parts, devices, and systems and redesign existing ones for other purposes. But there is always the possibility that a person with malicious intentions could co-opt those same innovations, which carry no inherent danger, and use them to cause harm. In response, Interpol has developed strategies to assist law enforcement and experts in the health and scientific communities in confronting this threat and raise awareness of the stakes of criminal exploitation.

As the world’s largest international police organization, Interpol knows from its past experience in combating cybercrime, the trafficking of illicit goods, maritime piracy, and other criminal activities that a strategy in one country is not necessarily right for another. Some countries have more advanced law enforcement methods and agencies; others have little or no synthetic biological activities to even regulate. Still, law enforcement officials around the world should learn how to gauge future threats and how to mitigate them and prepare for the consequences of a biological attack in a neighboring country or their entire region. A global policing strategy for dealing with synthetic biology should spread awareness of the potential threats but must not impede further scientific discovery.

A HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE

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