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Sunday, February 5, 2023

PERSPECTIVE: Navigating Cyberbiosecurity Threats and New Security Frontier

In my recent HSToday article, “Biosecurity Evolving as Cyber Threats Emerge,” I provided a foundation for biosecurity and discussed its accelerating and widening trajectory for the life and biomedical sciences into realms for which increasing dependency on “Big Data” and its exploitation, information systems and cybertechnology exist now and will only become greater and more pervasive.

In that piece, I introduced an emerging perspective which is wrapped in a concept called “cyberbiosecurity.” This new domain is gelling at the convergence of the life and biomedical sciences with information science and cybertechnology, under the combined umbrellas of biosecurity and cybersecurity, to address new and unrealized threats and risks.

The proposed new discipline of cyberbiosecurity is described in detail a recent article in Frontiers: Bioengineering and Biotechnology. This article also describes how a particular application was performed. Through creating this new opportunity space, my colleagues and I intend to foster bringing disparate expert communities and stakeholders together to identify, characterize and address current and future vulnerabilities and shortfalls in the security of life sciences, health, agricultural and food systems and environmental protection and remediation at the interface of “bio” and “cyber.” For each and together, a structured discipline and enterprise of cyberbiosecurity can encourage and foster new collaborations, partnerships, engagements, leverage, programs, outcomes and benefits. I invite you to carefully read and consider this paper and the cited references and then think about whether, or how, you and your organization might fit.

From a strategic perspective, cyberbiosecurity can help to advance and strengthen economic competitiveness, national security and societal robustness. From protecting high-value intellectual property or sensitive personal health information, to ensuring that critical medical instrumentation and equipment is impervious to cyberattack so patients are not put at risk, to maintaining the integrity of genomic data being shared in “the cloud,” to protecting against the disruption or takeover of agricultural systems, to ensuring that advanced manufacturing produces what is expected with no unintended consequences, threats and risks exist now that need attention and could present and cause crises from which it would be difficult to overcome and recover. I submit that “lean forward” will be a substantially better posture that reacting to and held at risk by threats that are active and go unnoticed or surprise and debilitate.

PERSPECTIVE: Navigating Cyberbiosecurity Threats and New Security Frontier Homeland Security Today

It is highly likely that off-the-shelf solutions exist and could be implemented quickly for some situations, if the right expertise and attention were focused. It is also likely that novel solutions, as yet undiscovered, must be conceptualized, supported, developed and transitioned with sustainable benefit. For both sets, this includes not only science and technology, but also for best practices and standards of practice, awareness and training, strategies and policies and regulatory and legal aspects, as well.

The advancement and maturation of cyberbiosecurity would support and buttress “Safeguarding the Bioeconomy,” which is also discussed and cited in the Frontiers paper. If the proponents are successful in achieving their strategic goal of having “The Bioeconomy” included within the U.S. National Critical Infrastructures, to be successful this initiative would have to have a firm foundation and active ecosystem of policies, resourced programs, stakeholders and constituencies. Cyberbiosecurity can become a key pillar for safeguarding the bioeconomy.

It is not necessary to wait for this initiative to achieve initial success and be established to advance, develop, define the boundaries and identify the panoply of possible applications of cyberbiosecurity.

Several initiatives could begin immediately. Leadership, vision and resources are the key ingredients. In reality, these could strengthen the case for safeguarding the bioeconomy. These might include:

  • one or a set of national or international conferences at which pertinent constituencies are represented from government, corporate, academic and nonprofit sectors and are designed to maximize awareness, begin fruitful communication and collaboration, and begin the process of defining actionable value in the areas noted above;
  • a smaller multidisciplinary group of experts could be convened to produce a “roadmap” to galvanize attention, develop priorities and recommend specific areas for investment;
  • tangible, well-structured pilot efforts “across the waterfront” could be resourced and conducted, which result in specific demonstrative solutions to or investments against high-priority threats, risks or concerns.

The first set of publications, invited presentations by me and others and specific engagements on cyberbiosecurity by a few to this point have begun to lay the groundwork for the future. What comes next remains to be seen. However, a few well-placed and timed steps could produce a cascade that causes the future to materialize in both predictable and unexpected ways.

The future of cyberbiosecurity awaits. To paraphrase a current Microsoft-sponsored television commercial about the power of new generations of technologies, “What will we do with it?”


The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by Homeland Security Today, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints in support of securing our homeland. To submit a piece for consideration, email HSTodayMag@gtscoalition.com. Our editorial guidelines can be found here.

Randall Murch
Randall (Randy) Murch is a Research Lead and Professor of Practice at Virginia Tech – National Capital Region, where he has been since December 2004. Prior to that, he was a Research Staff Member, Institute for Defense Analyses for two years, where he conducted studies and analyses for the U.S. national security community. He was a Special Agent and Senior Executive, Federal Bureau of Investigation, from January 1980 to November 2002. While at the FBI, he served in three field offices, several assignments in the FBI (Forensic) Laboratory, several assignments in the FBI’s technical surveillance program and was detailed to the Defense Threat Reduction Agency. He was responsible for many investigations, new technology development programs, conducting and supporting many technical investigations and operations, and managing complex mission-oriented programs and technical organizations, and had extensive collaborative engagements with other U.S. Government Agencies and friendly foreign governments. While he was SES, he initiated and oversaw the creation of the U.S. and first-ever Weapons of Mass Destruction forensic investigative program and has remained active in the biological component since his retirement. At Virginia Tech, Murch focuses on research, development, capability transition as well as strategic program development in advanced forensic science, biosecurity, cyberbiosecurity, biosurveillance, biological threat reduction and integrated capacity building at the interfaces of science and technology, operations, intelligence and investigations, policy and law. He has been loaned for IPA assignments to the Department of Homeland Security and Department of Defense as a senior advisor since he has been at Virginia Tech. For over 15 years, he has served on senior advisory groups for the U.S. national security community and on boards and committees for the U.S. National Academies. He has published in a variety of journals, published invited book chapters, has made numerous invited presentation throughout the U.S. and internationally, has testified in U.S. courts of law as an expert witness approximately 110 times and before the U.S. Congress on several occasions. He holds a BS from the University of Puget Sound, an MS from the University of Hawai’i at Manoa and a PhD from the University of Illinois at Urbana – Champaign, all in the Life Sciences.

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