22. December 2010 06:00
Shhhh… do you have a secret? In the new Age of WikiLeaks, it might not stay secret long even if you aren’t a diplomat or a politician.
In recent days the notorious whistle-blowing site Wikileaks has disclosed “confidential” U.S. State Department cables that separately mention two life science companies: the drug giant Pfizer and the Iceland-based deCode Genetics.
Other cables reveal that the State Department has asked embassies abroad to collect “biometric” information on individuals that include the Director General of the World Health Organization (WHO) and key advisors to United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. One cable detailed intelligence priorities in Africa and mentions the acquisition of target subjects’ DNA.
In this digital era most of us already know that every utterance we make in emails, on Facebook, or in other digital locales might be seen by others beyond our control. The genetically savvy are aware that no one can protect themselves from having their DNA surreptitiously collected - from saliva in a half-consumed glass of water or a hair follicle left on a comb - and disclosed to others.
But seeing how secrets are bandied about in the cloak and dagger world of diplomatic cables opens up another dimension to life in the digital age, and may end up being a game changer in how secrets are handled – or not.
The cable involving Pfizer recounts a sleazy episode that occurred in Nigeria, where a cable sent last year by the U.S. Embassy in Abuja marked “confidential” describes a smear campaign apparently engineered by the company to discredit Nigeria’s attorney general.
The cable recounts a conversation between Pfizer’s country manager, Enrico Liggeri, and embassy officials detailing a legal case in Nigeria that had been dragging on for over a decade. It involved allegations that the company had mishandled clinical tests on Trovan, an antibiotic, given to children in the northern Kano region during a 1996 meningitis epidemic.
Although Trovan did show some effectiveness, Nigerian officials claimed that Pfizer's researchers did not obtain the required signed consent forms and failed to tell some parents that their children were getting an experimental drug. Some Nigerian officials suggested that the drug had been responsible for five deaths and complications in other children, which Pfizer denied.
Leading the legal charge against Pfizer was Nigerian Attorney General Michael Aondoakaa, who was demanding $6 billion in damages from Pfizer. "According to Liggeri," the cable says, "Pfizer had hired investigators to uncover corruption links to federal attorney general Michael Aondoakaa to expose him and put pressure on him to drop the federal cases. He said Pfizer's investigators were passing this information to local media.”
The cable then reports “a series of damaging articles detailing Aondoakaa's 'alleged' corruption ties were published in February and March . Liggeri contended that Pfizer had much more damaging information on Aondoakaa and that Aondoakaa’s cronies were pressuring him to drop the suit for fear of further negative articles.”
Both Pfizer and Aondoakaa have denied any wrongdoing, and Pfizer fought the case until last year when it reached a $75 million settlement with the local state government of Kano. The federal charges were dropped.
The deCode mention was much more innocuous. It appears in a cable from the U.S. Embassy in the Icelandic capital of Reykjavik that reports on alleged techno-spying by China in Iceland, which included “human intelligence” and bugging phones, according to the cable. One of the targets was genetic testing company deCode, though what exactly the Chinese were looking for, or what they might have learned is not mentioned in the cable.
Like much of what appears on WikiLeaks, these life science-related cables are titillating with their backroom whispers of dirt and espionage. But what do they really mean?
In the case of Pfizer and the alleged smear campaign, one wonders if the company would have behaved this way if it knew that the operation might become public. The same goes for the deCode affair, in which China probably would not want it known that they spy on companies in other countries – even if this is hardly a revelation. We don’t know what the Chinese were after, but deCode does have genetic data on thousands of Icelanders and others from overseas stored in its computers.
More chilling, perhaps, are the State Department’s orders to collect biometric data, including DNA, on individuals. Few details are given in the cables, which leaves much open to speculation. Yet it’s worth mentioning that few laws exist in the U.S. or in any other countries to protect either the Secretary General of the UN or you and me from the surreptitious collection and use of our DNA.
“The cables are… a reminder that the law surrounding the surreptitious collection and testing of biometric data, including DNA, remains extremely murky,” says lawyer Dan Vorhaus in his excellent blog, The Genetic Law Report.
To date, WikiLeaks has released only about 1500 cables out of over 250,000 that they plan to publish in the coming weeks – assuming their enemies don’t shut down the site first. Given that three life science stories already have emerged – an average of one per 500 cables – it seems likely that more revelations are on the way.
Bio Mindshare-David Ewing Duncan is the Executive Producer of Mindshare and a columnist for Fortune.com; his latest book was the bestselling Experimental Man: What one man's body reveals about his future, your health, an our toxic world.