Hacking Gets Biological: How DNA Can Transmit Viruses to Computers Now

Media Division | August 23, 2017

With how widely we now implement various technologies within our society, it opens up a wide variety of attack vectors for those with malicious purposes. As we advance our technology, as do cyber criminals create more skillful and clever types of attacks. Fortunately for us, we often discover potential vulnerabilities prior to criminals being able to exploit them, which allows us to prevent them from being compromised. Fortunately, this appears to be the case in a recently discovered flaw in DNA sequencing software. To be specific, researchers were actually able to hack a computer using DNA.

The Method of a DNA Cyber Hack

The research was being done at the University of Washington. University researchers were able to successfully hack into a computer by encoding malware into a strand of DNA. They had created a strand of synthetic DNA and encoded malicious code in the basis of the strand. They then ran this strand through a vulnerable program, and when it was processed and sequenced by the program, it gave remote control of the computer. When the malware was encoded into four bases of the DNA (adenine, cytosine, guanine, and thymine or A, C, G, and T), the sequencing implements converted the code into computer code.

The only thing that makes this cyber hack even possible is a vulnerability within DNA sequencing software and only in this isolated situation. Meaning, there is no real reason to be concerned about this kind of hack, as it cannot really be replicated for the most part. The researchers said that they have no evidence to believe that DNA data or sequencing is being targeted. The research was more for the purpose of demonstrating these potential sequencing software vulnerabilities, and to show that these should be addressed before they do become an issue.

Past Research with DNA Storage

This is not the first time that data has been stored within DNA. For instance, Harvard geneticists were able to store a 52,000 word book into DNA strands. They did this by using DNA base letters to store the 0’s and 1’s of the books digital file. In another example just last month, Harvard scientists were even able to store moving pictures within living cell DNA. So, while using DNA to hack a computer may sound outrageous, it really is in the realm of possibilities given the storage abilities of DNA strands. Who knows, DNA may become a future way of storage for us, right along hard drives.

Being that this was first discovered by researchers, it allows for these types of vulnerabilities to be patched before hackers can figure out a way to use it. Of course, most hackers are not likely to be equipped with DNA sequencers and other equipment, this does not mean that they could not obtain it were they to determine this was a valuable method of attack. As the researchers made the point of, this is a measure of proactivity, as we can rapidly remediate these weaknesses within sequencing software, which would eliminate the issue and possibility in general. Proactivity is key in all types of cyber security and defense in this modern age of technology. Hackers are always looking for new ways to breach and compromise our systems and networks, and potential zero day exploits like the above are often how they catch us off guard. This then allows the hacker to steal massive amounts of data or damage our various systems and networks before they are even detected. While attackers may not necessarily have a reason to target DNA now, we should nip it in the bud before they do have a reason.

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