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29 August 2008

Intellectual property claims as denial & deception measures in medical intelligence

Following yesterday’s clear demonstration of the official embrace of open source intelligence comes a sharp reminder of that discipline’s limitations. The field of medical intelligence – and in particular, epidemiological intelligence – has been one of the areas in which OSINT has seen great successes. These successes are all the more important as they have involved the integration of specific scientific and technical expertise into collection, analysis, and visualization of extremely hard problems across very large scale geographies and populations. However, much of the underlying open source information and reference materials have only been made available due to the predominate ethic of free information exchange which prevails in scientific sharing and peer review. A recent Washington Post article (via Futurismic and Open the Future) highlights a new concept that may threaten the fundamental availability of those underlying materials.

This concept - viral sovereignty – immediately brings to mind the worst days of the Cold War, in which the Soviets sought to conceal information regarding large scale disease outbreaks to preserve the illusion of a superior socialized medical system, and in some cases such as the 1979 Sverdlovsk outbreak, prevent revelation of their clandestine biological warfare programs. The newest iteration of these ideas couple the same statist impulse towards censorship with a distorted view of the intellectual property market, resulting in a truly poisonous brew. One might consider such paranoia- and profiteering- driven claims a unique type of denial & deception measure aimed directly at the OSINT mechanisms of governments, pharmaceutical firms, and international organizations.

We would not wish to see a future where fundamental medical information regarding new disease outbreaks is simply not available in certain high risk countries. The potential higher order effects of such short-sighted decisions are readily considered – including the “surprise” global emergence of highly virulent new infection strains from unreported lower level outbreaks. Such a state of affairs could simply not be permitted to exist unchallenged, and as a result it is likely that a number of nations (particularly regional neighbors most likely to be impacted by such outbreaks) might then turn to clandestine collection means to acquire what previously was the open domain of science itself. This raises serious proliferation concerns, if new disease variants are obtained by BW aspirant countries (or non state actors) but are not otherwise widely known among nations which have abandoned biowarfare programs. One could also anticipate a surging demand for such clandestine collection measures for industrial espionage purposes, especially in countries where the legalities and ethics of an open competitive intelligence profession simply does not exist.

Such frictions would not only distort legitimate markets for pharmaceutical advances, but also would fundamentally impact the iterative and collaborative nature of modern medical research. And the first victims of these negative effects would likely be the unfortunate citizens of the country seeking to employ spurious intellectual property claims in this manner.

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