We now live in a time in which you can use DNA to hack computer systems.
The discovery was made by a group of researchers at the University of Washington made up of both computer science and molecular biology specialists. They focus on how information is encoded not only in computer systems, but also in biological systems, and particularly in the overlap between the two.
The team of researchers originally launched the project because they noticed possible security vulnerabilities in the computer systems used at their university for DNA sequencing and analysis. The lab treated DNA samples were treated as non-threatening input, but the researchers could imagine a way to sneak code into the computer system via DNA. So they decided to hack the DNA sequencing computer system to prove it.
In this particular case, the group of researchers encoded a malicious program onto a synthetic strand of DNA only 176 bases long — a very small amount. Then a computer read and transcribed the DNA into binary code, which could then be read and executed by a computer. The researchers had already purposefully inserted certain vulnerabilities into the computer’s security system so that the computer wasn’t protected against the malicious code. In this case, the malicious code gave the researchers remote control over the infected computer.
The researchers could have simply chosen to infect the system using malware or remote access tools. Instead, they wanted to infiltrate the system using a virus to prove that it is a real vulnerability which warrants consideration.
The group stresses that they don’t believe there is any cause for alarm, as there is little immediate danger. However, they urge us to begin thinking about such possible threats now, before they become immediate threats.
Security concerns aside, the discovery is interesting in scientific terms. This experiment shows us how fully biological and computer code can overlap, and it invites us to imagine a world of fluid boundaries between life and computer.
You can read the whole paper here.
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