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10 August 2017, 11:37 | Patty Hardy
Synthetic DNA Enables the Latest Horrifying Cybersecurity Threat
Each dot represents one strand of DNA in a given sample.
"The DNA sequencing community, and especially the programmers of bioinformatics tools, should consider computer security when developing software". 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.
They said closing the security gaps in the software that's used for analyzing DNA is mostly a matter of following best practices in the computer industry.
To prove their point, the researchers turned a snippet of malicious computer code into a string of synthetic DNA, and then used it to take control of a computer that was programmed to search for patterns in the raw files that emerge from DNA sequencing.
As terrifying as this may sound, there is very little risk of your computer being hacked by DNA anytime soon.
The malware was encoded into DNA using a buffer overflow, a cybersecurity anomaly that occurs when a command overwhelms an allocated block of memory and overflows onto adjacent memory, causing the execution of malicious code.
By doing this, they have exposed a weakness in systems that could lead to hackers taking control of computers in research centres, universities and laboratories, reports MIT technology review.
The DNA hack will be shown at the Usenix Security Symposium in Vancouver later this month. Rather than exploit an existing vulnerability in the fqzcomp program, as real-world hackers do, they modified the program's open-source code to insert their own flaw allowing the buffer overflow.
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After sequencing, we observed information leakage in our data due to sample bleeding. "We agree with the premise of the study that this does not pose an imminent threat and is not a typical cyber security capability", Jason Callahan, the chief information security officer at gene-sequencing equipment manufacturer Illumina, told Wired. "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". "There are a lot of interesting-or threatening may be a better word-applications of this coming in the future", says Peter Ney, a researcher on the project.
'We don't want to alarm people or make patients worry about genetic testing, which can yield incredibly valuable information, ' said study co-author Dr Luis Ceze.
The electronic and molecular worlds are converging as scientists refine techniques for sequencing and synthesizing DNA (i.e. reading and writing DNA).
"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".
DNA is, at its heart, a system that encodes information in sequences of nucleotides.
Vendors and companies that manufacture synthetic DNA strands are reportedly on alert for bioterrorists and the researchers have suggested that they might have to check samples for threats in future. Mitigating this prospect however, is getting malicious DNA strands from a doctored sample into a sequencer, which presents many technical challenges.
Researchers at the UW Molecular Information Systems Lab are working to create next-generation archival storage systems by encoding digital data in strands of synthetic DNA.
Some were written in unsafe languages known to be vulnerable to attacks, in part because they were first crafted by small research groups who likely weren't expecting much, if any, adversarial pressure.
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