Discovery of a new hacking method reverberates as DNA data storage becomes more widespread
University of Washington researchers figured out a way to use biology to infect computers with malicious code.
In their experiments, the researchers stored malware in synthetic DNA and demonstrated how that code can compromise a computer analyzing the DNA after it has been run through a gene-sequencing machine.
The danger of such an attack is still years away, the researchers said, adding they haven’t seen evidence of hackers attempting this sort of breach. The experiments highlight a new type of threat that could allow sophisticated coders to gain control of computer systems if precautions aren’t taken.
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“This is something [the genomics industry] and the U.S. government should be concerned about,” said Tadayoshi Kohno, a computer-science professor at the university and a member of the research team.
The team will present the results of its experiments, conducted in late 2016 and 2017, at a security symposium in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, on Aug. 17.
The hack makes use of technology in which digital bits of data are converted into synthetic DNA. Researchers believe DNA data storage could prove far more durable than stashing information on hard disks and flash drives, which last just a few years and can crash without warning. The nascent technology converts the 1s and 0s of computing’s binary code into A, C, G and T, the letters that correspond to DNA base types, adenine, cytosine, guanine and thymine.