July 15, 2018

Malware in your DNA sequence data? Technically, it's possible

11 August 2017, 01:08 | Dale Webster

The University of Washington’s Lee Organick Karl Koscher and Peter Ney prepare the DNA exploit for sequencing

UW researchers with DNA data experiment

Though the prospect of defending against DNA malware is interesting, the researchers rigged the attack in their favor, making the attack unrealistic.

The fixes are relatively straightforward, but programmers will have to be as careful about DNA code as they are about the more usual kind of computer code.

Researchers demonstrated for the first time that it is possible to remotely compromise a computer using information stored in DNA.

While this kind of malware could be a potential security risk in the future, the researchers said that there is no reason for any concern yet.

Encoding this malware was done by ordering copies of DNA off the internet and feeding the strands into a sequencing machine.

This command was created to target a particular flaw that the team had previously discovered in the DNA processing programme. They experimentally evaluated that after sequencing and post-processing, the generated file was used as an input into a vulnerable program.

Researchers at the University of Washington showed that it's possible to convert malicious software into data and store it in physical strands of synthetic DNA, the Wall Street Journal reports.

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

While a hack like this is a possibility, scientists also added that they made it easy to pull off because of the way in which it was carried out, basically keeping computers open to threats by disabling all security features. They are also needed to store billions of DNA bases that can be sequences from a single DNA sample.

"We have no evidence to believe that the security of DNA sequencing or DNA data in general is now under attack", the research team said in a statement. "But we found it is possible".

A doctored biological sample could even be used as a vector for malicious DNA to be processed downstream after sequencing, and executed.

In the new paper, researchers from the UW Security and Privacy Research Lab and UW Molecular Information Systems Lab offer recommendations to strengthen computer security and privacy protections in DNA synthesis, sequencing and processing.

'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.

Remember a few month ago when we were all laughing at Harvard scientists for putting a GIF inside a strand of DNA? They then fed this sample into a computer through a DNA sequencing machine that began decoding the sample.

First, it's important to realize how important computers are when it comes to DNA. While there are regulations to prevent synthesizing biological viruses such as chicken pox, the researchers warn it may be more hard to detect executable code in DNA.

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. 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.

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