Biological malware: Scientists use DNA to hack a computer

UW researchers with DNA data experiment

In its most basic form, the DNA is a way of storing information, and its strands are made from four building blocks - A, C, G, and T.

Threats from DNA strands being sequenced and used as a vector for computer attacks have not been under consideration up until now, researchers argue. Each dot represents one DNA strand in a given sample.

"The DNA sequencing community, and especially the programmers of bioinformatics tools, should consider computer security when developing software", they wrote. The researchers found that many of these programs contained serious security flaws, and were written in programming languages known to contain security problems and vulnerable code, such as C and C++.

But beyond the consumer craze for DNA testing, there is now an interesting example of how DNA is being used in security research.

In what appears to be the first successful hack of a software program using DNA, researchers say malware they incorporated into a genetic molecule allowed them to take control of a computer used to analyze it. However, this is the first time that malware has been stored in DNA and used to infect a computer system. The bio-malware is encoded into the physical strands of DNA so that when the sequencer analyzes it, the resulting data becomes an actual malicious file.

Code that can bridge the biological/computational divide is an unnerving possibility, one demonstrated by a team of computer scientists based at University of Washington. The hack makes use of technology in which digital bits of data are converted into synthetic DNA. The team will present the results of its experiments, conducted in late 2016 and 2017, at a security symposium in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, on August 17.

After sequencing, we observed information leakage in our data due to sample bleeding.


"Instead, we'd rather say, 'Hey, if you continue on your current trajectory, adversaries might show up in 10 years. So, let's start a conversation now about how to improve your security before it becomes an issue, '" said Kohno, whose previous research has provoked high-profile discussions about vulnerabilities in emerging technologies, such as internet-connected automobiles and implantable medical devices. "Thus, while scientifically interesting, we stress that people today should not necessarily be alarmed, as we discuss both above and below". "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".

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

In the study, researchers revealed they were able to use the controversial gene editing CRISPR system to encode information in living cells.

"One of the big things we try to do in the computer security community is to avoid a situation where we say, "Oh shoot, adversaries are here and knocking on our door and we're not prepared". In this case, the command contacted a server controlled by Kohno's team, from which they took control of a computer in their lab they were using to analyze the DNA file.

"However, getting the malicious DNA strand from a doctored sample into the sequencer is very hard with many technical challenges". They also have to worry about tampered DNA attacking not only humans but computers as well.

Once inserted into the genome of e.coli, the data can then be retrieved by sequencing the DNA and the images are reconstructed by reading the pixel nucleotide code, which was achieved with around 90 per cent accuracy. "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.

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