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Researchers Hacked a Lab’s Pathogen Containment System. Was It a Good Idea To Publish the Results

Negative pressure systems help keep dangerous pathogens contained in laboratories and hospital rooms. Given the potentially dire results should microbes escape one of these containment facilities, researchers at a major US university sought to probe whether negative pressure systems could be hacked. The team not only disrupted such a system at a real laboratory, but the researchers also laid out in great detail how to perform the hack.

While addressing loopholes in lab security is critical, by posting their paper online, the researchers broadcast the study’s potentially dangerous results to anyone with an internet connection. It’s a paper that highlights a worrisome trend in the life sciences. Scientists are conducting dual-use research— research in which knowledge generated with beneficial aims can also serve malicious ends—with little oversight and then freely disseminating their findings. The paper on hacking biological containment controls came in the wake of another publication from Boston University.