Researchers remotely compromise a computer using malicious code hidden in synthetic DNA

Scientists Hack a Computer Using DNA

Researchers at the University of Washington in Seattle have "installed" malware into DNA that they purchased online, then hacked the computer that was used to analyse it.

"Instead, we'd rather say, 'Hey, if you continue on your current trajectory, adversaries might show up in 10 years".

The research team identified several different ways that a nefarious person could compromise a DNA sequencing and processing stream.

In what sounds like a script from a dystopian sci-fi thriller, scientists have "hacked" a computer using DNA.

"We don't want to alarm people or make patients worry about genetic testing, which can yield incredibly valuable information", said co-author and Allen School associate professor Luis Ceze.

Given the nature of the data typically handled, this could be a major issue in future - as the molecular and electronic worlds grow ever-closer, potential interactions between the two loom on the horizon, which no one has hitherto contemplated.

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The researchers will present their findings in a paper at the Usenix Security Symposium in Vancouver this month. To start, they demonstrated a technique that is scientifically fascinating - though arguably not the first thing an adversary might attempt, the researchers say.

DNA is, at its heart, a system that encodes information in sequences of nucleotides.

"We look at emerging technologies and ask if there are upcoming security threats that might manifest, so the idea is to get ahead", says Peter Ney, a graduate student in Kohno's Security and Privacy Research Lab. A part of the problem is that the tools for DNA sequencing were initially developed by authors who did not imagine that the technology would see an exposure to cybersecurity risks in the future. While any data that is input in a computer could contain malicious code, this is probably the first time that malware has been encoded in DNA strands. They hope that their research will encourage the DNA sequencing community to be more proactive in addressing computer security risks and follow secure software best practices when coding bioinformatics software. Soon after, researchers were able to gain full control over the computer used, according to the report. "But we found it is possible".

"Although used broadly by biology researchers, many of these programs are written by small research groups and thus have likely not been subjected to serious adversarial pressure". But as the cost of DNA sequencing has plummeted over the last decade, open-source programs have been adopted more widely in medical- and consumer-focused applications. "Biologically-benign but digitally-malicious code could potentially be implanted to thwart others from analyzing that DNA". For example, if an attacker knew DNA samples will be sequenced on a computer they contaminate blood and saliva samples with a specially crafted synthetic gene. "We have no evidence to believe that the security of DNA sequencing or DNA data in general is now under attack".

They also pointed out that attacks using synthetic DNA are difficult to carry out because it'll be hard for attackers to synthesize malicious DNA strands and to find relevant exploits in processing programs. "That would be a good initial step". Image: University of Washington.

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