Science

Security flaw found that could have allowed hackers to create viruses

Cyber-security researchers from the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev recently discovered a computer attack that could allow hackers to remotely trick laboratory scientists into creating toxins and viruses.

Medical professionals use synthetic DNA for a variety of reasons, including the development of immunogens for creating vaccines. The Ben-Gurion researchers developed and tested an attack that changes data on a bioengineer’s computer to replace short DNA sub-strings with malicious code.

If anybody wanted to spread a virus or toxin by hijacking a reputable lab or hiding it inside of a vaccine, they’d traditionally need physical access to the laboratory or part of its supply chain. According to a paper published in the journal Nature Biotechnology, that’s no longer the case. The researchers claim that a simple trojan horse and a bit of hidden code could turn medicine into malice.

A cyberattack intervening with synthetic DNA orders could lead to the synthesis of nucleic acids encoding parts of pathogenic organisms or harmful proteins and toxins. The cyber-security researchers conducted a test, a hidden DNA encoding a toxic peptide, which was not detected by software implementing the screening guidelines. The researchers managed to use their technique and bypass security on roughly sixteen out of fifty attempts.

We’re in a dangerous place where AI isn’t advanced enough yet to detect these kinds of adapted envelope attacks and humans simply can’t catch them all. DNA replication services synthesize DNA in numbers so great it would be impossible for humans to check each sequence. We rely on automation and AI to make sure everything is as it should be, but when anomalies show up, the machines turn to humans to make the call. In this case, humans likely wouldn’t be able to see through the smokescreen either.

To address the issue, the researchers suggest a wave of cybersecurity measures they claim should be implemented immediately across the biotechnology community. 

ARTICLE: JOSEPH MODICA

SCIENCE/HEALTH EDITOR: KYLE SMITH

PHOTO CREDITS: CAMBRIDGE INDEPENDENT

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