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A team of researchers at Ben-Gurion University in Israel have described a possible bioterrorist attack scenario in which the supply chain of synthetic DNA could be compromised. DNA synthesis providers could be tricked into producing harmful DNA sequences and delivering them to unsuspecting customers.
Synthetic DNA is currently produced for research purposes and is available in many ready-to-use forms. Clients of DNA synthesis providers specify the DNA sequences they require and the DNA synthesis company generates the requested sequences to order and ships them to their customers.
There are safety controls in place to prevent DNA being synthesized that could be harmful, but the Ben-Gurion University researchers point out that those safety checks are insufficient. Hackers could potentially exploit security weaknesses and inject rogue genetic information into the synthesis process, unbeknown to the customers or DNA synthesis providers. For example, rogue genetic material could be inserted that encodes for a harmful protein or a toxin.
The researchers describe an attack scenario where a bioterrorist could conduct an attack that sees harmful biological material ordered, produced, and delivered to customers, without the attacker ever having to come into contact with lab components or biological materials. The researchers say the hypothetical attack method they describe is an “end-to-end cyberbiological attack” that can be performed remotely using a computer with a carefully crafted spear phishing email that delivers a malicious browser plug-in.
An attacker could craft a spear phishing email targeting an individual and use social engineering techniques to get them to install a malicious browser plug-in on their computer. When a genuine order is placed for a specific DNA sequence, the attacker would perform a man-in-the-middle attack and change the requested DNA sequence sent to the DNA synthesis provider, without the knowledge of the person submitting the order.
Checks would be performed by the DNA synthesis company to screen out potentially dangerous sequences. Provided those checks are passed, DNA synthesis would begin, and the product would then be shipped to the customer. The sequence would be checked by the customer, but the same malicious plugin could return the requested sequence. The DNA sequence with the rogue DNA would then be used in the belief it is the sequence requested.
Source: Ben-Gurion University
The research paper describing the threat and the potential attack method – Cyberbiosecurity: Remote DNA Injection Threat in Synthetic Biology – was recently published in Nature Biotechnology. The image above shows the attack process with the malicious steps detailed in red.
The Department of Health and Human Services has produced HHS Screening Framework Guidance for Providers of Synthetic Double-Stranded DNA and requires DNA synthesis providers to screen double stranded DNA. The screening process should highlight any harmful sequences and would ensure that those sequences were not released to customers; however, the researchers point out that there is currently no single, comprehensive database of all pathogenic sequences and it is potentially possible to bypass these checks.
“Currently, the software stack used to develop synthetic genes is loosely secured, allowing the injection of rogue genetic information into biological systems by a cybercriminal with an electronic foothold within an organization’s premises,” explained the researchers. The researchers also demonstrated that through the use of obfuscation, 16 out of 50 DNA samples were not detected by screening systems.
A bioterrorist attack of this nature would be complex, which limits the potential for such an attack to occur, but given the potentially devastating consequences, more rigorous security controls need to be implemented. The current safety mechanisms have been put in place to prevent the deliberate or accidental synthesis of harmful DNA, but the researchers explain that those safety mechanisms have not been adapted to reflect recent developments in synthetic biology and cyberwarfare.
“Biosecurity researchers agree that an improved DNA screening methodology is required to prevent bioterrorists and careless enthusiasts from generating dangerous substances in their labs,” explained the researchers in the report.