Cyber criminals could target lab scientist computers to create viruses

Researchers from the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev have discovered that a particular cyber-attack could lead hackers to remotely trick laboratory scientists into making viruses.

Indeed, lab professionals often use synthetic DNA for a multitude of reasons, including for the development of immunogens in order to create vaccines. The researchers decided to test an end-to-end attack that could change the data on a bioengineer’s computer and replace the short DNA sub-strings with malicious code. Usually, if cyber criminals wanted to hack a lab computer and spread a virus or toxin, they would need physical access. But this is no longer the case.

The research revealed that using a simple trojan horse and hidden code could change medicine into malicious code without being noticed by the medical experts. A cyberattack of this kind, that would change the synthetic DNA order, could have catastrophic impacts and lead to the synthesis of nucleic acids encoding parts of pathogenic organisms or harmful proteins and toxins.

The researchers even conducted a test to prove that the threat is real. With a Trojan horse, the hacker can infect a lab computer, change the DNA order, and make it look legit so that the scientists won’t notice it. Yet, the obfuscated DNA sub-strings can be very dangerous.

16 out of the 50 tests the researchers tried were successful.

In times of a pandemic and lockdown, the possibility of a cyber-attack into DNA codes can be extremely harmful and disastrous. It is impossible for humans to check manually each sequence and AI is not developed enough to detect this kind of attack. This calls for the implementation of very strict and powerful cybersecurity measures across the entire medical and research sector.