28 Thoughts

Quantifying BioCrime

The Nike Fuelband was just one of many examples within a movement known as ‘Quantified Self’. In simple terms this is basically a process of being aware of what we do and how it affects us. For instance, knowing that by running two miles you burn a certain number of calories, or that in a day you’ve walked a certain number of steps.

Moving forward we’ll see more tools appearing that enable us to access the data we’re producing and at the time of writing in the middle of 2013, the vast majority of comment is about the positive opportunities data recording brings. For Nike, last year’s profits rose by 18% in their equipment division due to the launch of the Fuelband, and for the public, it would appear we like recording and observing a lot of what we’re doing and, at times, sharing it with others.

This habit of recording, observing and sharing may seem fairly trivial when it only involves calories burned but we’re on the brink of unlocking a new level in our personal information. The game is already in play and it involves the most advanced storage system in the universe that holds the most detailed personal information on each and every one of us.

Our DNA.

In terms of ‘self’ there is no purer version and the moves toward quantifying it are rapidly taking shape, a subject well covered in Wired Magazine in recent times, inspiring this piece in many ways.

Scientists have been onto this for ages too. The first human genome sequence cost £2billion to complete in the year 2000, today it’s less than £2500 and by the end of the decade it will cost less than a pound. As you read this, genetic engineers are programmeming living things directly all over the world. To aid this effort, thousands of people have proactively shared their complete genetic codes and other biometrics to the Public Genome Project. On the good side we can envisage new possibilities in ‘life betterment’ such as medicines and disease control, on the downside there’s a high chance we are moving into an era of BioCrime.

If you view living organisms as computers, the hardware is the cell and the operating system software is our personal DNA. In short, what we currently know as computer hacking will likely be mirrored in DNA hacking.

After all, if genetic engineering becomes as common as software engineering, there will be millions of new developers in the field and it’s extremely likely (if not inevitable) that sociopaths and terrorists will be involved.

If we look at the range of digital hacks and ask what the BioCrime versions would be, there are some pretty bleak outcomes that could well be round the corner. For now, I’ll resist talking about mass genocide and vicious denial of service attacks of entire cities but instead focus in on four BioCrime scenarios that would appear to be waiting in the wings.


As with computer spam, it’s all about volume. It isn’t targeted very much; it’s just a numbers game.

Bringing the methodology across to BioCrime you could envisage the creation of synthetic bacteria that can easily be distributed to a small group and realistically could spread like a common cold. This could blanket the world in months.

It so happens that pattern formation is already supported in synthetic creations so people could suddenly develop rashes on their skin with logos or other imagery on. Even by writing that I imagine the media industry dreaming up a new terminology. Rash Marketing or some such… Rash is the new Reach… oh boy.

Seriously though, one could imagine new industry verticals opening up with companies distributing anti-spam technologies from synthetic vaccines to body-covering equipment to avoid contact with the spreading BioSpam bacteria. If you are in an anti-virus company today, this may be your next market opportunity.


Taking DNA and placing it somewhere else could quite easily frame someone at the scene of a crime they were nowhere near.

In an article published by the Journal of Forensic Sciences International, researchers demonstrated it is possible to isolate DNA from a tissue or glass and mass-produce it. For instance a piece of skin could be grown or in-vitro sperm produced that frames someone for sexual assault.

Can you imagine the level of policing this would require and the advancement in biotechnology to counteract it? And what type of tools could individuals use to protect themselves from being ‘BioSpoofed’?


500 million times a day an official looking email requests a recipient to open links that then steal information.

In the digital world it is more possible to not leave a ‘signature’ but biologically we leave parts of us everywhere. Signatures with extraordinary volumes of data inside that are way more detailed than any digital interaction we carry out. We may be paranoid about technology companies seeing our passwords but that’s nothing in comparison to what we’re already leaving behind.

We’re always shedding skin cells for a start. Then there’s the saliva left on every cup or item of cutlery, and taxis and plane seats covered in our hair. Hotel bathrooms and beds provide an ideal location for BioPhishing with various fluids left around, all providing material to be used in the same way as our passwords are used when our email accounts are hacked.

Hairstylists and waiters may not seem so innocent in the future and your sewage system could easily be tapped for more private information than you’ve ever even told anyone. ‘Knowing your shit’ takes on a whole new meaning.

The DNA of unborn children doesn’t even escape the threat as baby cells can be automatically sorted out of a mother’s blood sample unwillingly left on a toothbrush.

One could imagine the types of organisations that may combat this. Maybe clothing companies or furniture manufacturers could innovate in areas that show what you’re leaving behind in terms of DNA?

Spear BioPhishing

This is a more personalised version of mass BioPhishing.

Spear BioPhishing is a personalised biological attack where viruses, cells or other nanoparticles are engineered to become activated only when in contact with a particular organism or individual(s).

This could manifest like wiping the short-term memory of a particular group of people (like a shift of factory workers for example), or to ensure a particular politician loses his or her ability to speak…Maybe the monitoring technologies could be used to monitor our relative sanity to check and alert us if any unusual activity is taking place? I’ll resist the obvious punchlines here.

So while the Quantified Self movement is certainly full of funky ways to find out about our fitness and meaningful ways to find out about our core health:

– We must move forward with awareness that the other side of the coin will be growing just as fast if not quicker. Don’t only seek out the information that supports your preference or what suits your particular job, company or industry.

– We must only build the future we want to live in. Everything you do has an impact on what is next. Question everything you are building today and check you’re morally okay with the consequences of how things may play out if extended from today’s version.

If you’re a company looking for the next white space of opportunity, the area of BioCrime is one you may not want to miss out on. In a positive way I hope. Start from considering the above four scenarios in terms of what the human need would be and how you could add extreme value.

Taken from 28 Thoughts - see 'books' on the menu.