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Biological malware: Scientists use DNA to hack a computer
10 August 2017, 11:40 | Jodi Jackson
La Tigre for WIRED
Modern sequencing techniques can go through hundreds of millions of DNA strands at the same time, and the sequencing machines themselves need to hookup to computers. The researchers proved that the malware encoded inside DNA could take over a computer sequencing the genetic material. Each dot represents one DNA strand in a given sample.
The team, led by Professor Tadayoshi Kohno (who has a history of investigating unusual attack vectors), were inspired out of concern that security infrastructure around DNA transcription and analysis was inadequate, having found elementary vulnerabilities in open-source software used in labs around the world. But their analysis of software used throughout that pipeline found known security gaps that could allow unauthorized parties to gain control of computer systems-potentially giving them access to personal information or even the ability to manipulate DNA results.
To carry out the weird hack, researchers encoded malicious software into a small stretch of DNA they ordered online.
While the researchers hinted that hackers could one day use their method to access sensitive data, the DNA malware doesn't now pose a threat.
The research team at the University of Washington's Paul Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering argues that these bioinformatics tools have faced little to no adversarial pressure.
The DNA hack will be shown at the Usenix Security Symposium in Vancouver later this month. "To study the feasibility of creating and synthesizing a DNA-based exploit, we performed our attack on a modified downstream sequencing utility with a deliberately introduced vulnerability".
"Somewhere down the line, when more information is stored in DNA and it's being input and sequenced constantly", Shipman says, "we'll be glad we started thinking about these things".
This pipeline includes any facility that accepts DNA samples for computer-based gene sequencing and processing.
"When this physical strand was sequenced and processed by the vulnerable program it gave remote control of the computer doing the processing", the researchers write.
"We don't want to alarm people or make patients worry about genetic testing, which can yield incredibly valuable information", said the study's co-author Luis Ceze in a statement. "We do want to give people a heads up that as these molecular and electronic worlds get closer together, there are potential interactions that we haven't really had to contemplate before".
'It remains to be seen how useful this would be, but we wondered whether under semi-realistic circumstances it would be possible to use biological molecules to infect a computer through normal DNA processing, ' said co-author Peter Ney.
Not an immediate threat, but latest successful DNA hack proves that biologists just don't have to worry about creating or spreading a risky stretch of genetic code that could result in an infectious disease.
Vendors and companies that manufacture synthetic DNA strands are reportedly on alert for bioterrorists and the researchers have suggested that they might have to check samples for threats in future.
"However, getting the malicious DNA strand from a doctored sample into the sequencer is very hard with many technical challenges".
First, it's important to realize how important computers are when it comes to DNA.
Researchers at the UW Molecular Information Systems Lab are working to create next-generation archival storage systems by encoding digital data in strands of synthetic DNA.
"A few scenarios come to mind", co-author Karl Koscher tells Inverse.
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