Bill and Ray call for security by obscurity

About a week or so ago Ray Kurzweil and Bill Joy condemned the publication of the genome of the virus responsible for the flu epidemic of 1918. Kurzweil in particular called for the genome to be censored.

I’m not an pathologist or security expert but this strikes me as security by obscurity and, as such, is destined to fail. Have we learned nothing since 1945? Once someone figures out how to do something, the genie is out of the bottle. Military secrets, especially those involving technology, are fleeting.

The specifications for building nuclear weapons are actually fairly well known. One only has to comb the Web a bit to learn what is necessary and, the few remaining aspects that remain secret can reverse-engineered with CAD and simulation software. If we’re not concerned about efficiency or explosive yield, what worked in 1945 is good enough for any country aspiring to nuclear arms. The only thing that really slows nuclear proliferation is the expense and conspicuousness of the technology needed to build the weapons. Nuclear reactors aren’t cheap and they are obvious. Governments work very hard to search for and track any significant sources of radioactivity. It’s not impossible for well-educated terrorists to build and use a nuclear weapon but, it is very hard for them to do so.

On the other hand, recreating the 1918 flu virus would be easier to hide and cheaper to do. This is part of what Joy and Kurzweil are worried about but, I think the real way to defend civilization is with more openness not more secrets. Wouldn’t it better if the CDC knew all the details of the 1918 virus so as to be better able to develop vaccines and other defenses?

Perhaps I’m misunderstanding Joy and Kurzweil’s position but, looking at it naively, security by obscurity is poor security indeed.

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