Forget Phishing Emails, DNA Could Carry Computer Viruses

Scientists Hack a Computer Using DNA

"That is, we were able to remotely exploit and gain full control over a computer using adversarial synthetic DNA".

Scientists at the University of Washington in Seattle, have successfully been able to code a malware program into a DNA sample and use it to hack into a computer that was studying it.

Everyday humans, especially, should not panic: This exploit applies only to specifically designed deoxyribonucleic acid used to affect computer programs-not living organisms. While this phenomena 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.

DNA sequencing costs have dropped significantly since 2008, thanks to advances in next-generation sequencing (NGS) technologies.

Erlich told the MIT Technology Review that the attack took advantage of a spill-over effect, when data exceeding a certain threshold can be interpreted as a command. Genetic researchers have actually used DNA to store data, such as Amazon gift cards, GIFs, and books.

So far, the researchers stress, there's no evidence of malicious attacks on DNA synthesizing, sequencing and processing services. That makes this particular DNA hack unlikely in the wild, at least right now.

The DNA malware targeted security loopholes that were discovered in the analysis software.

Even then, the attack was fully translated only about 37 percent of the time, since the sequencer's parallel processing often cut it short or-another hazard of writing code in a physical object-the program decoded it backward.

In this case, it looks like the "hackers" have made a lot of workarounds to get this to work- introducing a vulnerability into the analyzing program and doing a lot of optimization of the DNA sequence encoding the malware to make it work.

In any case, this is the goal of the work that security scientists do: to take off issues before they happen.

Then, once the process became automated from the 1980s onwards, DNA sequencing machines and analyzing programmes started to store DNA sequences as computer files.

The research was carried out at the University of Washington.

Not an immediate threat, but latest successful DNA hack proves that biologists just don't have to worry about creating or spreading a unsafe stretch of genetic code that could result in an infectious disease. As DNA sequencing companies like 23andMe become more popular, this opens up the threat of hackers stealing the private medical information of millions of people.

We shouldn't ignore its implications for the future, though.

For now, the threat of DNA encoded with computer malware is theoretical. "Instead, we view these results as a first step toward thinking about computer security in the DNA sequencing ecosystem".

They used nucleotides, the building blocks of DNA, to produce a code that relates to the individual pixels of each image.

The research paper, written by Peter Ney, Karl Koscher, Lee Organick, Luis Ceze and Tadayoshi Kohno, says that while it hasn't yet been a target for adversaries, there is a real change it could happen in future.

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