Malware in your DNA sequence data? Technically, it's possible
Malware in your DNA sequence data? Technically, it's possible
Synthetic DNA Enables the Latest Horrifying Cybersecurity Threat
11 August, 2017, 08:52
The team, led by Professor Tadayoshi Kohno (who has a history of investigating unusual attack vectors), were inspired out of concern that security infrastructure around DNA transcription and analysis was inadequate, having found elementary vulnerabilities in open-source software used in labs around the world. What is a DNA sequencing pipeline? According to the researchers, numerous programs used to sequence and analyze DNA are incredible insecure, leaving them open to attacks. Although their system relies on DNA sequencing, it does not suffer from the security vulnerabilities identified in the present research, in part because the MISL team has anticipated those issues and because their system doesn't rely on typical bioinformatics tools.
In its most basic form, the DNA is a way of storing information, and its strands are made from four building blocks - A, C, G, and T.
DNA sequencing tools lack robust protections against cybersecurity risks. For the first time, it was shown that when a gene sequencer analyzes the malicious code encoded in the physical strands of DNA, the resulting data turns into a program that corrupts gene-sequencing software. That code could then remotely give full control of the computer to attackers.
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"Somewhere down the line, when more information is stored in DNA and it's being input and sequenced constantly", Shipman says, "we'll be glad we started thinking about these things". 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. However, a group of security analysts working out of the University of Washington has gone one further and figured out how to hack a PC utilizing code composed of a blended DNA strand. And when that FASTQ file is compressed with a common compression program known as fqzcomp-FASTQ files are often compressed because they can stretch to gigabytes of text-it hacks that compression software with its buffer overflow exploit, breaking out of the program and into the memory of the computer running the software to run its own arbitrary commands. The synthetic strands were passed through a sequencing machine, which converted the gene letters into binary digits, 0s and 1s. "We also stress that its environment is in many ways the "best possible" environment for an adversary", the researchers say in their report. A key caveat to their specific attack is that they disabled ASLR, an exploit mitigation technology used in all major operating systems.
When asked by Devin Coldewey of TechCrunch if such a malicious payload could be "delivered via, for example, a doctored blood sample or even directly from a person's body?" Each dot represents one strand of DNA in a given sample. "Even if you were successfully able to get it into the sequencer for sequencing, it might not be in any usable shape (it might be too fragmented to be read usefully, for example)". They also clarified that if hackers attack DNA sequencing technologies it won't actually affect your genome, or of other living organisms. "We have no evidence to believe that the security of DNA sequencing or DNA data in general is now under attack".
"It remains to be seen how useful this would be, but we wondered whether under semi-realistic circumstances it would be possible to use biological molecules to infect a computer through normal DNA processing", said co-author and Allen School doctoral student Peter Ney. Alphr has contacted the researchers for more information. Especially given that the DNA samples come from outside sources, which may be hard to properly vet. "It's about considering a different class of threat".
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