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    Malware Hidden in Synthetic DNA Could Infect Sequencing Systems

    A research team of computer scientists based at University of Washington has demonstrated for the first time that it is possible—though still challenging—to compromise a computer system with a malicious computer code stored in synthetic DNA. When that DNA is analyzed, the code can become executable malware that attacks the computer system running the software.

    The team also analyzed the security hygiene of common, open-source DNA-processing programs to uncover evidence of poor computer security practices used throughout the field.

    These findings emerged from a study that will be presented August 17 in Vancouver, B.C., at the 26th USENIX Security Symposium. The study, entitled “Computer Security, Privacy, and DNA Sequencing: Compromising Computers with Synthesized DNA, Privacy Leaks, and More,” is already available at the team’s website.

    “We demonstrate the synthesis of DNA which—when sequenced and processed—gives an attacker arbitrary remote code execution,” the article’s authors wrote. “To study the feasibility of creating and synthesizing a DNA-based exploit, we performed our attack on a modified downstream sequencing utility with a deliberately introduced vulnerability. After sequencing, we observed information leakage in our data due to sample bleeding. While this phenomenon 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.”

    So far, the researchers stress, there's no evidence of malicious attacks on DNA synthesizing, sequencing, and processing services. But their analysis of software used throughout that pipeline found known security gaps that could allow unauthorized parties to gain control of computer systems—potentially giving them access to personal information or even the ability to manipulate DNA results.

    In the new paper, researchers from the UW Security and Privacy Research Lab and UW Molecular Information Systems Lab (MISL) offer recommendations to strengthen computer security and privacy protections in DNA synthesis, sequencing, and processing. The research team identified several different ways that a nefarious person could compromise a DNA sequencing and processing stream. To start, they demonstrated a technique that is scientifically fascinating—though arguably not the first thing an adversary might attempt, the researchers say.

    DNA is, at its heart, a system that encodes information in sequences of nucleotides. Through trial and error, the team found a way to include executable code—similar to computer worms that occasionally wreak havoc on the internet—in synthetic DNA strands. To create optimal conditions for an adversary, they introduced a known security vulnerability into a software program that's used to analyze and search for patterns in the raw files that emerge from DNA sequencing.

    When that particular DNA strand is processed, the malicious exploit can gain control of the computer that's running the program—potentially allowing the adversary to look at personal information, alter test results, or even peer into a company's intellectual property.

    Researchers at the UW MISL are working to create next-generation archival storage systems by encoding digital data in strands of synthetic DNA. 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.

    Recommendations to address vulnerabilities elsewhere in the DNA sequencing pipeline include: following best practices for secure software, incorporating adversarial thinking when setting up processes, monitoring who has control of the physical DNA samples, verifying sources of DNA samples before they are processed, and developing ways to detect malicious executable code in DNA.