Scientists Hack a Computer Using DNA

Scientists Hack a Computer Using DNA

Malicious software was encoded into short strands of DNA that scientists purchased online.

In their experiments, the researchers stored malware in synthetic DNA and demonstrated how that code can compromise a computer analyzing the DNA after it has been run through a gene-sequencing machine. Each dot represents one DNA strand in a given sample. When the program analyzes DNA, it reads it like code - allowing the biohacker to take advantage of the security loopholes and take over the computer.

To achieve their gene hack, the researchers created the "best possible" chances of success by disabling several security features and creating a vulnerability in one of their bioinformatics programmes. 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 prove their point, the researchers turned a snippet of malicious computer code into a string of synthetic DNA, and then used it to take control of a computer that was programmed to search for patterns in the raw files that emerge from DNA sequencing. They then fed this sample into a computer through a DNA sequencing machine that began decoding the sample.

"We have no evidence to believe that the security of DNA sequencing or DNA data in general is now under attack", researchers wrote. They experimentally evaluated that after sequencing and post-processing, the generated file was used as an input into a vulnerable program.

By doing this, they have exposed a weakness in systems that could lead to hackers taking control of computers in research centres, universities and laboratories, reports MIT technology review.

The findings will be presented at the 26th USENIX Security Symposium in Vancouver next week. "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. While this phenomenon is known to the sequencing community, we provide the first discussion of how this leakage channel could be used adversarially to inject data or reveal sensitive information".

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To speed up the processing, the images are divided into thousands of chunks, and analyzed in parallel - all data comprising their attack had to fit into just a few hundred such bases, to increase the likelihood it would remain intact throughout the sequencer's parallel processing.

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

While this kind of malware could be a potential security risk in the future, the researchers said that there is no reason for any concern yet. "Thus, while scientifically interesting, we stress that people today should not necessarily be alarmed, as we discuss both above and below".

The University of Washington's Lee Organick, Karl Koscher and Peter Ney prepare the DNA exploit for sequencing. "I doubt it." But he adds that, with an age of DNA-based data possibly on the horizon, the ability to plant malicious code in DNA is more than a hacker parlor trick. "That means when you're looking at the security of computational biology systems, you're not only thinking about the network connectivity and the USB drive and the user at the keyboard but also the information stored in the DNA they're sequencing".

Talking about the applications, an existing DNA strand can be contaminated using a malicious DNA.

The concept of DNA storage dates back to the 1960s.

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