Researchers put malware into DNA, hacked computers

Image credit: Jack Moreh
Date:14 August 2017 Tags:, , ,

Using altered gene sequencing software, researchers used an unorthodox method to take control of lab computers. They put malware into DNA and hacked lab computers.

By Avery Thompson

As our computers and other devices become more connected, malware becomes an ever greater threat. Users have to be constantly on the lookout for hostile software that can hijack any internet-connected device. Now a group of researchers has discovered a new malware threat, and it could come from within your own body.

A group of researchers from the University of Washington have discovered a way to insert malware into DNA itself. This discovery can potentially be used to hack gene sequencing machines.

The hack is a bit convoluted, and requires changing some code on the sequencing machine beforehand. But once that code is changed, it sits dormant until the machine sequences a hostile string of DNA. When that DNA is converted into binary code by the sequencer, that code can take control of a connected computer.

That doesn’t mean that every genetics lab is suddenly at risk. This particular hack does require an edited version of the software, which means a potential hacker would have to sneak into the lab and update the computers before attempting a malware attack. That makes this particular DNA hack unlikely in the wild, at least right now.

But this research shows that the potential of DNA malware exists, and weaknesses in gene sequencing software could be exploited in the future. More broadly, this shows that malware can come from almost anywhere, and software operators will have to be more vigilant if they want to keep their devices safe.

But perhaps genetics labs might be a little more cautious when sequencing DNA from now on.

Source: IEEE Spectrum





This article was originally written for and published by Popular Mechanics USA.

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