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'Nature' Editorial Juxtaposes FOIA Email Release With Illegal Hacking

One of science's most important publications assumes science journalists don't know how to do their jobs.

Image: Shutterstock

Private emails between scientists working on a controversial genetic technology called “gene drive” were released last week. Obtained through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, their publication has been criticized by some as an attempt to discredit the science community.

Gene drives are a genetic engineering approach with huge implications. They’re meant to seed genetic traits—one that stops mosquitoes from carrying malaria, for instance, or hampers invasive rodents’ ability to reproduce—in a population, and with terrifyingly high odds of inheritance.

If things go wrong, gene drives could destabilize ecosystems. (So far, they’ve only been applied to yeast, fruit flies, and mosquitoes in a lab setting.) More ideally, they could wipe out deadly plagues by targeting their vectors, or give threatened species a fighting chance. Like any young technology, there are a lot of unknowns, and stakeholders are hoping to provide clarity at the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity next year; the same convention where a proposed gene drive moratorium was rejected in 2016.

The emails and other documents reveal details about gene drive’s biggest funders, including DARPA, the US military’s research agency. More than 1,200 files were published—released by North Carolina State University and Texas A&M University, at the request of biosafety consultant Edward Hammond, and anti-gene drive advocacy group Third World Network.

The files also contain communications between gene drive researchers and public affairs firm, Emerging Ag, which works on behalf of Target Malaria, a Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation-backed nonprofit focused on malaria control technology like gene drive.

Emerging Ag, in supporting “advocacy and engagement activities on gene drive,” tried to coordinate expert participation key United Nations forum, even suggesting “points you may wish to address.” The foundation’s interest in gene drive technology is well known, and there’s no proof that Emerging Ag swayed official discussions about the topic.

Evidence that DARPA is one of the largest funders of gene drives is indeed news, but was muddled in the way Hammond framed these documents as something truly nefarious: The site he used to release the documents calls gene drives “genetic extinction technology,” and called the emails proof of a “covert ‘advocacy coalition’ which appears to have been intended to skew the only UN expert process addressing gene drives.”

It’s extremely important to note that Third World Network, which is also credited for the FOIA release, explicitly endorsed the gene drive moratorium back in 2016, and cannot be considered an unbiased source.

The emails themselves, however, are news, and they were obtained in a lawful, straightforward way and were reported on by respected traditional news sources, such as The Guardian, which gave proper context to the files.

The release of these emails by a person who has a clear point-of-view on the issue, however, has led to yet another discussion of the proper way of publishing raw documents. Nature, one of the more respected and widely read science publishers, mentions the release of these emails in the same breath as emails that were obtained by illegal hacking in an editorial published this week:

The release of the e-mails echoes the way in which hackers released documents stolen from climate scientists before a major UN meeting in 2009. Much commentary on those documents suggested—wrongly—that scientists were up to no good. Still, damage was done and public trust in scientists declined. It would be unfortunate if the trick were repeated here, not least because it is scientists working on gene drives who have raised many of the concerns.

The 2009 hack that Nature mentions was terrible for scientists—climate scientists, in particular. When an email server at University of East Anglia’s Climatic Research Unit was breached, as part of a climate change denier campaign, emails were dishonestly misrepresented to suggest a conspiracy was afoot.

It is reasonable and fair game for Nature to take issue with the way Hammond framed the documents, but juxtaposing the use of FOIA—a crucial process by which citizens hold their governments accountable—alongside a major incident of criminal hacking is bizarre, and was handled poorly.

If Nature meant to say that Hammond’s FOIA trove was presented with malicious intent, then it failed to make that point clear.

“In our view, the editorial did not imply that FOIA—including the publishing of FOIA documents—is comparable to illegal hacking,” Nature senior press manager Rebecca Walton told Motherboard.

Motherboard spoke to one of the scientists who was targeted by Hammond: Todd Kuiken, a senior research scholar at North Carolina State University. He believes the editorial compares the “similarity” in how the FOIA results were manipulated, and “not the tactic of how they got the information.”

The framing of primary source documents is a conversation that has repeatedly come up in recent years, with the newsworthiness of hacked Sony emails and Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman John Podesta’s emails—published by Wikileaks—playing a central role in some of the biggest stories of the last few years.

There is a difference between these gene drive emails and hacked emails, though. FOIA is a powerful anti-corruption tool that sheds light on good, and bad, governance alike. It is especially important in today’s political climate, where the Trump administration has openly sabotaged its duty to transparency. Outside of Hammond’s own website, it seems few scientific outlets have framed the emails as nefarious: The Guardian, Gizmodo, and the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists all reported on the emails for what they were—evidence of the government’s involvement in a controversial technology.

Newsworthy and noteworthy things are regularly uncovered by people with agendas, biases, and distinct points of view. It may sound quaint in an era of disinformation and “fake news,” but we need to trust journalists to cut through those biases and report what’s important. Nature, in its editorial, implies that journalists can’t be trusted to do this core task of reporting when faced with documents that are released by a person or organization with a bias.

Hammond showed Motherboard what he claims to be the text of his FOIA request to North Carolina State University. He asked for correspondence between three university professors and research scholars—Kuiken, Fred Gould, Jason Delbourne—and various persons in the gene drive community.

On Tuesday, Hammond wrote to a FOIA listserv managed by Syracuse University for the National Freedom of Information Coalition.

Of course, I'm just a member of the public who happens to file FOIA requests. But I kinda sorta thought, after being places like this list over the years, that the media didn't really want draw parallels between felons and people who publish FOIA results. Probably not a good self-preservation policy.

“I didn’t read it that way,” Kuiken said when Motherboard described this reaction.

This isn’t the first time a Nature editorial has taken a polarizing stance on a subject. But science journalism has benefitted greatly from the FOIA process, and even the loosest comparison between the law and illegal hacking could be detrimental. The publisher has made no indication that it plans to clarify its ambiguous comment.

Open-records laws have been opposed by administrations and in Congress—perhaps never more-so than now—and it’s disappointing that Nature, in defending the science community, provided new ammunition for FOIA’s biggest detractors.