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Scientists Can Be Tricked Into Creating Hazardous DNA & Toxins

by Madonna Watts D'Souza
Scientists Can Be Tricked Into Creating Hazardous DNA & Toxins

December 11, 2020

According to a study, innocent and unaware scientists can be digitally manipulated by hackers to create dangerous substances.

Cyber attacks are present in our mind’s deepest trenches, where all fears reside. Believe it or not, most of us have a blueprint of ourselves online. From our names, bank accounts, and even our iris scans, the digital footprint is present. And unsurprisingly, it is at constant risk of being hacked.

Digital Data in Jeopardy

After breaking the walls of your cybersecurity, hackers can extract, manipulate, and even destroy your digital data. As cybersecurity keeps tightening and evolving, so do cyberattacks. However, this new form of cyberattacks now directly targets our bodies, who knows, even kill us. A new type of cyber attack has infiltrated the field of DNA and Biotechnology, and it can effectively trick scientists into creating lethal viruses and toxins.

Professors at the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Israel, explained that unaware, innocent, new, and vulnerable biologists and scientists could become victims of ‘Biological Cyberattacks’. One of these attacks aims to develop significant biological warfare, one of the most, if not the most, dangerous forms of global attacks.

DNA scientists
Synthetic DNA can be made into malicious pathogens or substances by hackers

A Global Threat

Globally, scientists are currently trying to develop and soon administer vaccines to end the COVID-19 pandemic. More than 100 vaccines are being developed, and some companies like Pfizer, Moderna, AstraZeneca, Oxford, etc., have applied for emergency approvals.

Nations, like the UK have already begun administering the vaccine to its citizens in phases. However, professors at Ben-Gurion University explain that physically threatening scientists to produce biological toxins or physically preparing and trading toxins have gone.

Instead, unaware and inexperienced scientists can be manipulated to create toxins or synthetic or lab-made viruses through cyber attacks via the internet. The study reveals the voids present in the current biological software.

Cyberbiosecurity: Remote DNA Injection

The recently published study- Cyberbiosecurity: Remote DNA Injection Threat in Synthetic Biology – explains biological hacking vulnerabilities. The study speaks about how these attacks occur, from inserting malware into the device to manipulate DNA Sequencing. It also highlights the drawbacks in the ‘Screening Framework Guidance for Providers of Synthetic Double-Stranded DNA and Harmonized Screening Protocol’ v2.0 systems. According to the study, the systems “enable protocols to be circumvented using a generic obfuscation procedure.”

In the US, the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) guidelines have made it mandatory to provide screening protocols and have them in place when screening the DNA orders made to synthetic DNA providers. In case the department finds any faulty or dangerous DNA Sequences, it can be discarded.

However, the team proved that they could bypass the given protocols through obscuring DNA samples, in which 16 out of 50 of these malign DNA samples went undetected by the supposedly ‘best match’ DNA screening.

Scientists who are unaware
Unaware and Ignorant scientists can most vulnerable to such cyber attacks

Tech Interventions

The current software is used to design and manage the synthetic DNA research, and order projects can be vulnerable to the infamous “man-in-the-browser” attacks. These attacks can be used to insert whimsical DNA strands into the given genetic orders. They encourage an “end-to-end cyberbiological attack,” according to the research team.

The hackers can add malicious browser plugins into their plan, as explained by the study to inject ‘obfuscated pathogenic DNA’ into an online order of synthetic genes.

How can scientists be tricked into creating malicious Biochemicals?

The study quoted the residual ‘Cas9 protein’, which utilizes malware to change the present sequence into active germs to demonstrate the probabilities of the attacks and how scientists can be potentially tricked into it. When someone gets hold of the CRISPR protocols, the Cas9 protein can be easily manipulated to “deobfuscate malicious DNA within the host cells,” according to the research.

To put this simply, it means that researchers with little experience of these cyber-attacks can be obliviously made to produce lethal substances, dangerous lab-made viruses, and other life-threatening toxins and pathogens.

Key Findings of the Study

Unfortunately, the screening guidelines have not been adapted to reflect recent developments in synthetic biology and cyberwarfare.

Rami Puzis, Head, BGU Complex Networks Analysis Lab

Rami Puzis, the head of the BGU Complex Networks Analysis Lab, explained, “To regulate both intentional and unintentional generation of dangerous substances, most synthetic gene providers screen DNA orders. This is currently the most effective line of defence against such attacks.” 

Unfortunately, the screening guidelines have not been adapted to reflect recent developments in synthetic biology and cyberwarfare. Puzis further added, “This attack scenario underscores the need to harden the synthetic DNA supply chain with protections against cyber-biological threats. To address these threats, we propose an improved screening algorithm that takes into account in vivo gene editing.”

The potential pathway of how these cyberattacks take place are shown in the image below:

Scientist DNA manipulation cyberattack
The image explains how hackers can infiltrate the researchers' devices and cause a DNA mayhem. Credits: National Center for Toxicological Research, US FDA, Jefferson, AR, USA. 2College of Pharmacy, University of Florida, Orlando, FL, USA. 3Office of Translational Sciences, Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, US FDA, Silver Spring, MD, USA.

In today’s world, where technological and biological advancements are being made daily and rapidly, it is essential to know that organizations with malicious tendencies can infiltrate the barriers and produce some lethal and sneaky mass destructive weapons. We need to be aware that our security protocols and software must progress two steps ahead of that of hackers and cybercriminals.

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