With each passing day, there is need to improve our cyber security systems as hackers are using more innovative ways to breach security networks and hack into computer systems.
What appears to be the latest inventive method of successfully hacking into a computer program is using DNA malware.
Researchers at the University of Washington have, for the first time, successfully hacked into a computer program by encoding a malware into a DNA sample.
This was possible through injecting a malware program into human DNA strands and using them to hack a computer program that analyzes DNA sequencing.
The bottom line is that the gene sequencer analyzes the custom DNA sample and the resulting data is a program that will corrupt the gene-sequencing software—which ultimately takes control of the entire computer.
Sci-Fi Hack Becomes a Reality
There has been rapid improvement in how biologists handle large amounts of human DNA samples.
With the increased need of medical and genetic tests, they are forced to digitize the samples and process them using computer programs.
Most analyze and process these samples using open-source DNA processing software that often does not follow the best security practices.
This means that apart from the common network hacking threats, computational biological systems can compromise cyber security—evident in the way bio-hackers demonstrate a threat that is less expected.
The researchers succeeded in using the life-encoding DNA molecule to attack and gain control of the underlying computer.
The custom DNA strands were used to transmit a malicious computer code from the biological state to the digital realm.
By designing and creating a synthetic DNA strand and embedding the malware at the bases of the strands, the computer science and engineering experts were able to run the hack in this research project.
After sequencing and processing the physical strand using the vulnerable computer system, this process allowed remote control of the computer.
That is, it was possible to exploit and gain full control over the underlying computer remotely by using an adversarial synthetic DNA.
The researchers encoded their malware on the four bases in the human DNA: adenine (A), cytosine (C), guanine (G) and thymine (T).
When these bases were read using a piece of DNA sequencing and processing equipment, the molecular code was converted into a computer code that could take over the computer system connected to the DNA sequencer.
This sci-fi resembling hack was possible because of the weaknesses in the DNA sequencing and processing software.
If the hack can give control over computer data, then improved iterations of this kind of attack are going to be a great security threat in the future.
A Future Threat
The researchers, however, pointed out that it is imperative to work on improving the current state of DNA security.
At the moment, this should not cause alarm as it is far from any practical criminal or real spy activity.
Further, there is no robust evidence that the DNA data or DNA sequencing, in general, is under threat.
However, the cyber security and DNA sequencing community should be encouraged to address these computer security risks proactively to avoid manifestation by adversaries in future.
Failure to follow the best cyber security practices will increase the vulnerability to attacks.
In April 2016, the University of Washington in collaboration with Microsoft demonstrated the possibility of transferring data using DNA.
This technique involved the ability to store and retrieve digital images using DNA strands.
With enough research, it will be possible to turn DNA into a medium that can store digital information.
It is driven by the unique property that DNA cells can use to store large amounts of information.
According to research carried out by Harvard University scientists in July, it was possible to store pictures and videos in the DNA of living cells.
This is part of a larger research objective that aims to create a molecular data recorder inside living cells.
This shows that with time, the use of synthetic DNA strands in handling computer data and information will be a reality.
This calls for further research to create a broad future framework that will ensure efficient security in DNA synthesis, analyses, sequencing and processing.