As DNA Synthesis Evolves, Cyber-Physical Attack Worries Grow

Israeli scientists warn that cybersecurity around DNA synthesis devices needs improvement -- or else the industry risks harmful DNA produced through cyber means.

4 Min Read

DNA software and the pipeline for synthesizing sequences lack the necessary cybersecurity protections to prevent attackers from compromising the pipeline and producing potential pathogenic sequences, according to a team of researchers from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.

The researchers conducted a proof-of-concept attack ordering a toxic peptide by obfuscating the DNA sequence in an approach that resembled the obfuscation techniques used by malware authors. The order bypassed screening checks and had moved to production before the researchers notified the company and canceled the order. Such attacks can be mitigated, but only if the industry starts looking for malicious DNA sequences in much the same way the companies currently look for malicious code, the team said in a letter published in Nature last week.

In fact, approaching the fast-moving pipeline of DNA sequencing in much the same way as agile development methodologies, such as DevOps, could result in better security, says Rami Puzis, a senior lecturer in software and information systems engineering at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and a member of the research team.

"DNA should be treated as code rather than data," he says. "It runs within a cell rather than on some operating system, but it runs. So we need to protect DNA the same way we protect code."

Such concerns come as DNA synthesis technology has become more widespread, driven by editing techniques, such as the popular CRISPR technology, that make manipulating DNA much less expensive and time-consuming. 

Because such techniques modify the building blocks of life, concerns over attacks on the DNA sequencing process are growing. In a paper presented at the USENIX Security Conference in 2017, scientists from the University of Washington analyzed the DNA processing pipeline to determine what weaknesses could be exploited. In that experiment, the researchers determined that a specially crafted DNA sample could be used as an untrusted input to exploit a vulnerable system.

"We found that existing biological analysis programs have a much higher frequency of insecure C runtime library function calls, (such as) strcpy," the University of Washington researchers stated in their paper. "This suggests that DNA processing software has not incorporated modern software security best practices."

Because of the complexity of such systems and the DNA synthesis pipeline, such attacks generally require a significant level of detailed knowledge. However, as the Stuxnet attack showed in 2010, such requirements might make the attacks more difficult, but not impossible.

The Ben-Gurion University letter to Nature — and a paper published online the same week — points out that a simple man-in-the-browser attack could replace benign DNA sequences with malicious ones, but that other, more dangerous, attacks could be accomplished.

"Сyber-physical attacks differ in scale and sophistication ... we believe that so would cyber-biological attacks," Puzis says. "So far we have considered the least sophisticated attack scenarios that may threaten DIY biologists or small labs doing experiments with CRISPR, but high-tier attack is something that needs to be investigated as well."

Possible defenses include many of the usual suspects already used within companies, including the addition of digital certificates to protect the integrity of the DNA sequence, detecting intrusions and system changes on computers used to order or edit DNA sequences, and the sharing of information on threats.

"This will significantly increase the barrier for attackers," Puzis says. "In addition, the packaging and labeling of genetic material should reflect its content much like in the delivery of chemical compounds. And, of course, tightened bio-security screening of the DNA orders including alert correlation and triaging, much like in the cybersecurity operation centers."

Already, two industry organizations have created best practices for biosecurity in DNA synthesis. The International Association Synthetic Biology (IASB) has created guidelines that call for analyzing sequences, logging suspicious requests, and screening customers. The International Gene Synthesis Consortium (IGSC) published best practices that require synthesizers to scan "every subsequence of 200 consecutive base-pairs and apply a best-match approach ... (with) [p]roblematic sequences requir(ing) subsequent human inspection to verify safety and legitimacy," the Ben-Gurion University team noted. 

Governments are taking a role, as well. In California, some regulations require companies to perform DNA screening to detect select agents and toxins.

"For an attacker, it won't be easy to make a devastating impact through remote manipulation of biological systems, but dual use of synthetic DNA is a long-known concern in bio-defense," Puzis says. "There is hope that regulation and technology keep pace."

About the Author(s)

Robert Lemos, Contributing Writer

Veteran technology journalist of more than 20 years. Former research engineer. Written for more than two dozen publications, including CNET, Dark Reading, MIT's Technology Review, Popular Science, and Wired News. Five awards for journalism, including Best Deadline Journalism (Online) in 2003 for coverage of the Blaster worm. Crunches numbers on various trends using Python and R. Recent reports include analyses of the shortage in cybersecurity workers and annual vulnerability trends.

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