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Hackers Now Targeting DNA Storage

It wasn’t long ago when scientists began utilizing DNA to store digital data. They’ve already used the technology to store images and even a digital movie file, all of which have been successfully copied back to a computer workstation after the fact. However, as we always stress, no means of data storage is 100% safe from hackers – and this holds true for DNA storage, too.

What is DNA Storage?

Just like human DNA stores genetic instructions for human beings, it can also be used to store digital data for computers. In fact, computer scientists have been toying with DNA as a storage medium since 2012. These earliest tests achieved a storage capacity of 1.28 petabytes of data per gram of DNA used, but experts believe this number isn’t even close to reaching the maximum potential.

DNA has other advantages over our traditional storage mediums, too. As stated by Yaniv Erlich, computer scientist with Columbia University, “DNA won’t degrade over time like cassette tapes and CDs, and it won’t become obsolete.”

A New Medium for Hackers

We knew it wouldn’t be long before hackers would begin targeting DNA. Although there hasn’t been any reported data breaches involving DNA storage to date, computer scientists with the University of Washington in Seattle recently pioneered the first-ever “DNA-based exploit of a computer system.” They achieved this by loading a strand of DNA – which is purchasable online – with custom-coded malware.

It’s important to note that their hack is meant to serve as a warning. The actual methodology used is quite unrealistic in the event of an genuine attack or data breach, but it underscores the vulnerability of this new, next-gen form of data storage.

Companies who provide synthetic strands of DNA for sale online are already monitoring sales for any suspicious activities. They are well aware of the dangers of bioterrorism and the prevalence of hackers in today’s online landscape.

The team with the University of Washington summarized their efforts by stating, in part: “To assess whether this is theoretically possible, we included a known security vulnerability in a DNA processing program that is similar to what we found in our earlier security analysis. We then designed and created a synthetic DNA strand that contained malicious computer code encoded in the bases of the DNA strand. When this physical strand was sequenced and processed by the vulnerable program it gave remote control of the computer doing the processing. That is, we were able to remotely exploit and gain full control over a computer using adversarial synthetic DNA.”

The Future of Data Storage

Synthetic DNA might very well be the storage medium we’ve been looking for all these years, but it’s far from perfect. Enterprises and organizations that make the transition to DNA-based storage might be able to slowdown the attempts of potential hackers and would-be identity thieves, but, as recent tests have shown, it won’t be long before these malicious computer users learn how to crack the DNA code, too.


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