Steve Bellovin's "Lessons from Suppressing Research"

Steve Bellovin has a good deal of very useful analysis and context about “an experiment that showed that the avian flu strain A(H5N1) could be changed to permit direct ferret-to-ferret spread. While the problem the government is trying to solve is obvious, it’s far from clear that suppression is the right answer, especially in this particular case.”

Steve’s post contains excellent context, putting the issue in context of nuclear secrets, cryptography and software vulnerability disclosure. I want to follow up a bit on his closing:

The ultimate decision may rest on personal attitudes. To quote Fouchier one more time, “The only people who want to hold back are the biosecurity experts. They show zero tolerance to risk. The public health specialists do not have this zero tolerance. I have not spoken to a single public health specialist who was against publication.”

I think that personal preference is one way to think of this, and perhaps in fact, personal preference drives the choice of profession. But perhaps what’s really happening is that public health specialists are operating with a different set of drivers than “biosecurity experts.” In particular, given the very low incidence of ‘biosecurity incidents,’ perhaps ‘biosecurity experts’ are operating in a world where all threats exist only on paper (or in papers). In contrast, public health professionals have real epidemics and pandemics to deal with. They’re forced to deal with the propaganda of anti-vaccination nuts whose fear of autism is killing people with whooping cough and other diseases. They have to deal with contamination of the food supply. They can reasonably prioritize preventing salmonella or e.coli over theoretical terrorist threats.

However, this narrow focus on preventing all problems (in contrast to risk management, cost-benefit or other pragmatic approaches) is not unique to bio-security experts. The security professional, focused by definition on security, will naturally tend towards zero tolerance for risks.

An example, already reduced to absurdity, is visible in the TSA. Their goal is not balanced security, it’s a relentless and offensive pursuit of security at the expense of dignity, calm, and cupcakes. But we should not be surprised at their pursuit of the cupcake. It’s the natural result of having an agency focused entirely on security.

This is, by the way, relates to why CISOs should report into a functional area of the business, be it operations or IT, rather than reporting to the CEO. If the CISO is focused entirely on security, then those concerns need to be balanced with the overall operational picture by someone with accountability for delivering of a whole to the business, not treated as some special magic.