DNA Injection Attack (Shellcode in Data)

BioHackers Encoded Malware in a String of DNA by Andy Greenberg.

From the post:

WHEN BIOLOGISTS SYNTHESIZE DNA, they take pains not to create or spread a dangerous stretch of genetic code that could be used to create a toxin or, worse, an infectious disease. But one group of biohackers has demonstrated how DNA can carry a less expected threat—one designed to infect not humans nor animals but computers.

In new research they plan to present at the USENIX Security conference on Thursday, a group of researchers from the University of Washington has shown for the first time that it’s possible to encode malicious software into physical strands of DNA, so that when a gene sequencer analyzes it the resulting data becomes a program that corrupts gene-sequencing software and takes control of the underlying computer. While that attack is far from practical for any real spy or criminal, it’s one the researchers argue could become more likely over time, as DNA sequencing becomes more commonplace, powerful, and performed by third-party services on sensitive computer systems. And, perhaps more to the point for the cybersecurity community, it also represents an impressive, sci-fi feat of sheer hacker ingenuity.

“We know that if an adversary has control over the data a computer is processing, it can potentially take over that computer,” says Tadayoshi Kohno, the University of Washington computer science professor who led the project, comparing the technique to traditional hacker attacks that package malicious code in web pages or an email attachment. “That means when you’re looking at the security of computational biology systems, you’re not only thinking about the network connectivity and the USB drive and the user at the keyboard but also the information stored in the DNA they’re sequencing. It’s about considering a different class of threat.”

Very high marks for imaginative delivery but at its core, this is shellcode in data.

Shellcode in an environment the authors describe as follows:


Our results, and particularly our discovery that bioinformatics software packages do not seem to be written with adversaries in mind, suggest that the bioinformatics pipeline has to date not received significant adversarial pressure.

(Computer Security, Privacy, and DNA Sequencing: Compromising Computers with Synthesized DNA, Privacy Leaks, and More)

Question: Can you name any data pipelines that have been subjected to adversarial pressure?

The reading of DNA and transposition into machine format reminds me that a data pipeline could ingest apparently non-hostile data and as a result of transformations/processing, produce hostile data at some point in the data stream.

Transformation into shellcode, now that’s a very interesting concept.

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