Malware stored in synthetic DNA can take over PC

DNA sequencing results including exploit

Did you find this story on DNA hacking interesting? The developers argue that an attacker could use it to hack any computer in the DNA sequencing pipeline.

The research was carried out at the University of Washington.

In what sounds like a script from a dystopian sci-fi thriller, scientists have "hacked" a computer using DNA. Each dot represents one strand of DNA in a given sample.

This command was created to target a particular flaw that the team had previously discovered in the DNA processing programme. Software that reads DNA will translate gene letters into binary digits of 0 and 1. They also said that computers and programs used to read DNA samples are not always actively maintained or updated.

Computer scientists are turning DNA into a new frontier for data storage and information processing, but a team from the University of Washington says it could become a frontier for cybercrime as well.

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

For the first time, it was shown that when a gene sequencer analyzes the malicious code encoded in the physical strands of DNA, the resulting data turns into a program that corrupts gene-sequencing software. "This led us to question whether it is possible to produce DNA strands containing malicious computer code that, if sequenced and analysed, could compromise a computer". "We analyzed the computer security practices of commonly used, open-source programs in this pipeline and found that they did not follow computer security best practices", the research team writes. "We welcome any studies that create a dialogue around a broad future framework and guidelines to ensure security and privacy in DNA synthesis, sequencing, and processing". "Said another way, our exploit is created to compromise a computer program involved in the DNA sequencing pipeline (and a program intentionally modified to include a vulnerability)". "Even if someone wanted to do this maliciously, it might not work".

The paper was published at the 2017 USENIX Security Symposium in Canada, and like we say, was rallying cry for greater regulation, but if we do hear anything more about biohacking (as we're calling it) we'll let you know.

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'We look at emerging technologies and ask if there are upcoming security threats that might manifest, so the idea is to get ahead, ' said Peter Ney, one of the scientists involved in the project.

Output from a sequencing machine that includes the team's exploit, which is being sequenced with unrelated strands.

The researchers admit that the threat of a DNA attack on computers remains theoretical today and consequently see no need for immediate concern.

In July, researchers from Harvard University revealed the first film stored in bacterial DNA.

When the researchers sent their carefully crafted attack to DNA synthesis service Integrated DNA Technologies, they found DNA had other restrictions too.

The team introduced the DNA into E. coli at a rate of one frame per day for five days. "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.

For the GIF, sequences are delivered frame-by-frame over time to living bacteria, where they are inserted into the genome in the order that they were delivered.

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