“The Matrix is real!” came a concerned comment from across the room. The discussion was centered around a recent article published by Wired magazine titled, “Biohackers Encoded Malware in a Strand of DNA,” (Aug 10, 2017, by Andy Greenberg, permalink here). Let me summarize the content in a couple of statements.
Researchers at the University of Washington are experimenting with encoding malicious software into physical strands of DNA. The result isn’t intended to be a physical virus – something that affects humans or animals. No, the goal would be to have that DNA processed by a sequencing computer, the computer would interpret the DNA into “code”, and then that code, turned into characters, text, and numbers, would essentially compose a program that could have the ability to corrupt the gene-sequencing software and possibly take control of the host computer.
The team of researchers ensures readers that this capability is far from practical. In fact, in order to successfully upload code from DNA they had to employ a number of “cheats” so the computer would not only read the code in the correct direction – DNA can be sequenced in any order, code cannot – but that when composed, the computer would allow this type of simple malicious code to execute. As it turns out, it is extremely difficult to encode highly complex text into DNA. Since most private and university lab equipment is locked down in terms of access and virus control, the likelihood of a simple malicious code being allowed to execute on a lab computer is remote. But as with any technological evolution, we’re bound to advance our DNA-encoding skills over time.
What are the repercussions of a DNA-hack? Imagine the proprietary information the host computer might hold. The source code for the sequencing software could be worth millions to a competitor. Think of the database of genetic information stored at the site. Access to the sequencing computer may include access to the network where genetically modified organism (GMO) information is kept or human gene analysis or any other frightening list of data. Imagine the harm that could be caused by someone wishing to keep their DNA information secure. A GMO manufacturer could encode malicious software into their products’ DNA so that when sequenced by a rival, the code would disrupt or even take down their competitors’ operations.
So, The Matrix? Not yet, but today we are a few steps closer to bridging that gap between the virtual world and the physical world than we were yesterday.
This blog comes from Chuck Gardner, NICERC’s Curriculum Director.