Record-keeping for strong attribution

In most places, if you buy a gun, its serial number is registered. This enables law enforcement to link guns used in crimes to their owners and thus deter their misuse. We should create a similar system for attributing biological agents – agents that also have the potential to kill people – to their creators. This may be achieved through keeping records of the genetic sequences of organisms that scientists work on. 

Record-keeping could take place at the DNA synthesis or sequencing stage. For instance, a record-keeping module could be introduced together with DNA synthesis screening into all DNA synthesis machines. Recorded DNA sequences would be encrypted (potentially hashed) to protect intellectual property (IP) and stored in a way accessible to later investigation. Once an unusual outbreak occurs, the sequence for the causative agent could be similarly encrypted and screened against the encrypted DNA records from facilities. Matches would result in a ping for facilities that have worked on the agent in question, which could automatically trigger an inspection. I call this system Retrospective Encrypted Corroboration Of Recorded DNA Sequences (RECORDS), but you might come up with something better.  

A record-based system for strong attribution of biological agents may be a powerful mechanism to deter biological weapons development and use. Thus, such a system could feature as part of a future BWC compliance regime. Routine visits as part of such a compliance regime could check for active record-keeping. For instance, microbial samples collected in the laboratory could be sequenced, encrypted, and checked against facility records for gaps. Lastly, functional strong attribution could be used to identify accidental laboratory releases – it could have provided important positive or negative evidence in the COVID-19 origins debate. 

A more simple initial alternative to a RECORDS system might be to create a commitment of DNA synthesis companies to cross-check existing records in the case of an unusual outbreak. For instance, members of the International Gene Synthesis Consortium keep order and customer records for 8 years which could be tapped into. 

There are many technical, economic, and political challenges to make record-keeping workable. Individuals familiar with DNA synthesis and sequencing, cryptography, block-chain developers, and social studies might be able to contribute here by doing initial scoping and expanding on this idea and how to put it in practice.

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