Scientists Hack a Computer Using DNA

UW researchers with DNA data experiment

The team also discovered that numerous open-source software programs that researchers use to process data from DNA sequencing contain security weaknesses.

A test tube containing hundreds of billions of copies of the code. DNA sequencers work by mixing DNA with chemicals that bind differently to DNA's basic units of code-the chemical bases A, T, G, and C-and each emit a different color of light, captured in a photo of the DNA molecules.

This command was created to target a particular flaw that the team had previously discovered in the DNA processing programme.

To carry out the weird hack, researchers encoded malicious software into a small stretch of DNA they ordered online.

After sequencing, we observed information leakage in our data due to sample bleeding. The researchers admit they rigged the experiment in their favor, disabling critical computer security systems and inserting their own flaw to allow the buffer overflow. In this case, the command was to contact another computer operated by the research team who were able to easily take over the host system that was analysing DNA, it was reported. They warn that criminals could use blood or saliva samples to gain access to places they know will sequence them, like university computers, police forensics labs, or genetics laboratories.

Regardless of any practical reason for the research, however, the notion of building a computer attack-known as an "exploit"-with nothing but the information stored in a strand of DNA represented an epic hacker challenge for the University of Washington team". The researchers responded in a worrying yes. In another scenario, as different DNA samples are often sequenced together, errors in a sequencing process could cause the malicious data in a DNA to end up in other people's data. "For now, these attacks are hard in practice because it is challenging to synthesise malicious DNA strands and to find relevant vulnerabilities in DNA processing programs. Even if you were successfully able to get it into the sequencer for sequencing, it might not be in any usable shape (it might be too fragmented to be read usefully, for example)".

The hack was done as a call to arms to the genetic data processing community to ensure best practices, and to prompt a discussion about the regulations around DNA sequencing. For their DNA sample to remain stable, they had to maintain a certain ratio of Gs and Cs to As and Ts, because the natural stability of DNA depends on a regular proportion of A-T and G-C pairs.

While creating sensational headlines, the team of "biohackers" also added that there is no immediate concern of such an attack happening as the possibility of a DNA hack remains theoretical.

"We know that if an adversary has control over the data a computer is processing, it can potentially take over that computer", says Tadayoshi Kohno, the University of Washington computer science professor who led the project, comparing the technique to traditional hacker attacks that package malicious code in web pages or an email attachment.

Researchers are instead warning the DNA sequencing community about the vulnerabilities they found and suggest that they should address the security risks before criminals try to attack. To start, they demonstrated a technique that is scientifically fascinating - though arguably not the first thing an adversary might attempt, the researchers say.

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. Let's not even go to that whole bio-cyber-weapon theory...

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