I’ve posted twice about Anonymous hacking into Stratfor — and, more generally, their hacktivism has been making bigger and bigger waves. CNN recently ran a fairly positive story on the support hacktivists are providing the Occupy movement. Many of these hacktivists are quite active on Twitter and elsewhere. However, from the perspective of both international and corporate espionage, the “quiet” hacks are the worst: someone makes off with information and the victim never knows. As security expert Kevin Mandia told the New York Times:
The hacks that do the most damage don’t have Twitter feeds.
Another security expert, Jeremy Falkenrath, in an interview on Bloomberg News (at about 7:00 into the video), discussed, quite matter-of-factly, the hacker-for-hire market that companies in the chemical industry deploy against one another to learn trade secrets. With this as the backdrop, I’d like to discuss one of the main open questions of cheminformatics: Is secure encryption of molecules possible? For example, it would be nice if a company could encrypt a molecule, but then allow some third party to run in silico tests with it, having access to the molecule’s properties but not the structure itself.
Encryption of molecules
Part of the reason for the traditional closed-data policies of pharmaceutical companies is the total absence of any way to encrypt chemical structural information. This has been recognized as an open problem for many years, the American Chemical Society held a special meeting in 2005 about it, a summary of which appeared in Nature. While there were presenters at that meeting who felt molecular encryption was possible, and others who felt it was impossible, the practical reality as we enter 2012 is that, so far, the voices in favor of “impossible” have been correct. Almost no new theoretical literature has been produced since 2005, and the industry appears no nearer a practical solution than it was in, say, 1975.
I recently had an idea to expand upon a proposal by Eggers et al. in 2001, to watermark in silico representations of molecules. My idea, however, is going nowhere — just like all other attempts so far to implement chemical watermarking. At least I can get a blog entry out of my failure though! I hope readers of this page find my little attempt entertaining or informative.
Acknowledgement: The material in this post is based on conversations I have had with cheminformaticians Rajarshi Guha and Jörg Kurt Wegner.