Security flaws in bioinformatics software have allowed researchers to demonstrate how DNA data could be injected with malicious code to disrupt police forensic investigations or steal intellectual property.
Lab Analysis Tools at Risk
A group of academics from the University of Washington used the 2017 USENIX Security Symposium to present their findings, which exposed vulnerabilities in the applications that are often used to analyze DNA data after it has been sequenced. In a paper, titled, “Computer Security, Privacy and DNA Sequencing: Compromising Computers With Synthesized DNA, Privacy Leaks and More,” the researchers discussed how they not only made use of a bug in a processing program, but also injected malware directly into a strand of DNA.
As Infosecurity Magazine explained, the executable file was launched as the DNA data was being sequenced by the bioinformatics tool, allowing the researchers complete access to the systems running it. The technique is powerful enough that if cybercriminals were to use it, they could probably steal information or compromise a variety of applications, including those used by law enforcement to conduct critical forensic analysis.
Malware Replication in Synthetic DNA Data
The Atlantic pointed out that the composition of DNA data actually looks a lot like the binary structure that makes up the fundamental core of application development. But instead of ones and zeroes, strands use the letters A, C, G and T. Sophisticated cybercriminals could theoretically replicate malicious code as a way to target victims, particularly if the software systems in question aren’t properly patched.
It’s not as though DNA data is being actively used in code injection attacks today, but the University of Washington’s teamwork demonstrated that it could be a credible threat vector at some point. The Verge noted that other scientists conducted an experiment not long ago where living bacteria was embedded with a GIF file showing a horse. That makes stuffing DNA with malware a lot less of a stretch.
There is some level of awareness about the risks in DNA data today already. According to Wired, scientists routinely make sure sequencing doesn’t produce diseases that could infect other living things. But the University of Washington’s research is more of a lesson to IT security experts that the traditional way of monitoring the perimeter may not be enough if a strand of DNA becomes a new endpoint.