In new research they plan to present at the USENIX Security conference on Thursday, a group of researchers from the University of Washington has shown for the first time that it’s possible to encode malicious software into physical strands of DNA, so that when a gene sequencer analyzes it the resulting data becomes a program that corrupts gene-sequencing software and takes control of the underlying computer. While that attack is far from practical for any real spy or criminal, it's one the researchers argue could become more likely over time, as DNA sequencing becomes more commonplace, powerful, and performed by third-party services on sensitive computer systems. And, perhaps more to the point for the cybersecurity community, it also represents an impressive, sci-fi feat of sheer hacker ingenuity.
“We know that if an adversary has control over the data a computer is processing, it can potentially take over that computer,” says Tadayoshi Kohno, the University of Washington computer science professor who led the project, comparing the technique to traditional hacker attacks that package malicious code in web pages or an email attachment. “That means when you’re looking at the security of computational biology systems, you’re not only thinking about the network connectivity and the USB drive and the user at the keyboard but also the information stored in the DNA they’re sequencing. It’s about considering a different class of threat.”
For now, that threat remains more of a plot point in a Michael Crichton novel than one that should concern computational biologists. But as genetic sequencing is increasingly handled by centralized services—often run by university labs that own the expensive gene sequencing equipment—that DNA-borne malware trick becomes ever so slightly more realistic. Especially given that the DNA samples come from outside sources, which may be difficult to properly vet.
If hackers did pull off the trick, the researchers say they could potentially gain access to valuable intellectual property, or possibly taint genetic analysis like criminal DNA testing. Companies could even potentially place malicious code in the DNA of genetically modified products, as a way to protect trade secrets, the researchers suggest. "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.