Researchers: Hackers Could Encode Human DNA With Malicious Software

Aug 12, 2017
Originally published on August 14, 2017 3:21 am
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When a computer gets infected with a virus, it's sometimes through a suspicious link or a vulnerable piece of code. But it turns out that actual pieces of DNA might be able to transmit viruses to computers, too. A group of scientists at the University of Washington have made that discovery. And they unveiled research earlier this week that shows hackers could potentially encode strands of human DNA with malicious software. If a computer were to sequence that compromised piece of DNA, the malware could take control of the computer and let hackers access all kinds of information. Karl Koscher is a member of that research team and joins us now from Seattle. Thanks so much for being with us.

KARL KOSCHER: Thanks for having me.

SIMON: What are the implications of this? What could hackers do?

KOSCHER: Currently, we don't think that there is much of a threat. These attacks are very difficult to pull off in practice. But looking towards the future, we think that if the technology trends continue, there would be the ability for malicious DNA to compromise computers.

SIMON: In what way? What could somebody with nefarious intentions do?

KOSCHER: Sure. So sequencing DNA is currently most cost efficient when you sequence a bunch of different samples together. And so, typically, you'll outsource your sequencing to a dedicated sequencing facility or lab. And let's say you want to learn what other people are sequencing. Say you want to get a leg up on some GMO research that people are doing. You could potentially insert malware into the sample that you send to the DNA sequencing facility to exfiltrate some of that data back to you.

SIMON: How did you guys discover this?

KOSCHER: What we try to do here is sort of look at emerging technologies and see if there are any security implications of those emerging technologies and try to get ahead of potential threats before they become actual threats. And so we had a team of people here working on a DNA storage project for using DNA instead of, say, hard drives for long-term storage. And so we had sort of the biological and chemical backgrounds for that as well as security expertise here.

SIMON: Are there any good reasons to use this?

KOSCHER: There is a separate group here working on storing data in DNA. It turns out that DNA is really robust for long-term storage, whereas, you know, hard drives may die after a few years. You can conceivably store data in DNA for hundreds or thousands of years. And as long as life continues to be based on DNA, we'll always have a reason to read and write DNA. So it's sort of a technology that won't go obsolete.

SIMON: So, I mean, we underscored the aspect of some kind of mischief or outright miscreants. But I wonder, you know, a few years from now, instead of having hard drives or storage systems, will people just carry around that information in themselves, in their DNA?

KOSCHER: I'm not sure that people will carry around that information within them. But I do believe people will start using DNA for sort of long-term storage. So accessing data from DNA and putting data into DNA is a pretty slow process. And so you'll want to, you know, archive photos in there and things like that. But you won't want to use it for your day-to-day tasks, at least not for the foreseeable future.

SIMON: Karl Koscher is a research scientist at the University of Washington. Thanks so much for being with us, sir.

KOSCHER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.