DNA Hackers: Synthetic biology weaponized virus, zero-day exploit to infect your brain?

From the let's get futuristically freaky department, future hacking crimes could take a decidedly sinister twist; not hacking to breach systems but brains, bodies and behaviors. This DNA hacking goes way beyond potentially using police bees to bust biohackers, or even storing unhackable data in box of bio-encrypted bacteria. It's not science fiction to hack insulin pumps or to use jamming signals to stop hackers from lethal pacemaker attacks, but now bioengineers and security futurists are warning that the day is coming when criminals and bioterrorists hunt for vulnerabilities that will give a new meaning to zero-day exploits. In the future, a weaponized virus will aim to infect you, your brain and body biology, and not just your computer or mobile device.

While some people resist the idea of needing antivirus or other security software defenses for their smartphones, in the world of synthetic biology, a world where bits, bytes, atoms and biology mix dreams with nightmare realities, it could be lethal to lag behind in patching potential vulnerabilities. Some day, when you hear about something going 'viral,' it will not apply to an idea or video but to a DNA hack going viral to infect the masses. When a computer is infected with malware or a virus, you can reformat a hard drive, but will a future security scenario include needing to worry about BSOD and reformatting your brain?


Just as you can personalize your computer and mobile devices, advances in synthetic biology are allowing DNA hackers to personalize biology so that we will be able to use a DNA printer that will allow us "to print out our own treatments." Think of it as a patch you need to close a vulnerability on a system. In this case, you would download it, print it, and swallow the "cure." You will be able to search for a flu or cold vaccine and then print out the genetic designs or download the "cure" via a smartphone app, reported Genomeweb. Cures for horrific diseases could spread quickly through social media, but with all good so too comes the bad. Just as a tainted app, poisoned link, phishing email, or malicious drive-by-download can target individuals to infect computers for espionage or cybercrime, computer-designed viruses like biologically engineered biotoxins could target groups to try to wipe them out.

Bioengineer Andrew Hessel, co-chair of Biotechnology at Singularity University, has talked extensively about the Internet of Living Things and how synthetic biology will be the next big IT industry. Hessel likes to play with molecules, DNA and computers, and explained "synthetic biology as computer-assisted genetic design will go 'from an idea to printing DNA to ultimately booting DNA'." SmartPlanet reported, "Mobile phones equipped with genome decoders are coming. DIY fabricators that work with cells are already here...The cost barriers around genetic engineering are, in fact, falling, and what are essentially life-form design tools are increasingly accessible."

When Aldith Hunkar interviewed Hessel at TEDx Amsterdam, Hessel said the barriers to engineering bacteria, viruses and much higher forms of life are falling away to create a "parallel biology, one that is moving at about 100 million years of evolutionary time for every calendar year." Synthetic biology "will grow faster than some computer technology" and then almost anyone can play God; the stuff of dreams and nightmares will become real. Hessel looks at cells as computers and viruses as software. To describe his biggest synthetic biology nightmare, he said, "When I look at the world of computing today, I see all of these hacks, all of these little exploits, whether it's spam or whether it's literally hacking into different systems and manipulating them in different ways. And I see the potential for biology to be used in very similar ways."

At Techonomy 2011, Hessel discussed the emerging field of synthetic biology and bioengineering. He said in this video that the engineering of life is like software engineering and computer-assisted genetic design will give us the ability to make viruses and vaccines. He asked, "What happens when we can make a vaccine as easily as we can make a tweet?"

Hessel explained that living systems can be programmed with new functions to do commercially or intellectually useful tasks. That could be great, so long as the people who are creating the bacteria are not out to wreak havoc. At TedXm, Hessel said our bodies have a relationship with bacteria which is constantly sending chemicals into our brains. However an evil bacteria or virus has no borders and hypothetically there might be a bacteria that strikes like a drive-by-download, made to appear like an innocent or helpful cure which we might print out on a DNA printer. But after we "ingest" it into our systems, it might trigger chemicals in the brain that change behavior. The security landscape will change if we have "to learn how to counterattack" such weaponized viruses.

Now consider when we will have the ability to "boot DNA" in the same way as booting up a PC, but the data wirelessly transmits into us to perhaps keep us "healthy." Another scary example from Hessel was if two companies were business competitors and one company infected the other with a virus or bacteria that made the company employees lazy or unhappy. If viruses are like biological spam, we could be infected with bacteria that manipulates our behavior and we might not even know it's happening.

Synthetic biology, when tweaked by bioterrorists, could be used for exploitation and "not only to drive large-scale outbreaks. They will also be able to create targeted attacks against a single individual based on his or her own unique biology," reported The Washington Post. "We will need anti-virus software and defenses just as we have for computer software. But although we can reformat our hard disks to remove a computer virus, we can't reformat our genomes ... yet."

If DNA becomes the next big hacking frontier, it would open a plethora of "Pandora's Box problems." The Washington Post quoted security futurist Marc Goodman, the founder of Future Crimes:

Synthetic biology will lead to new forms of bioterrorism - opportunities for the bad guys to create never-before-seen forms of bio-toxins. These bio-threats might be nearly impossible to detect because they can be customized to the genome of a certain person or groups of people. Goodman, who has long worked on cyber crime and terrorism with organizations such as Interpol and the United Nations, believes the potential bio-threat is greatly underestimated. "Bio-crime today is akin to computer crime in the early 1980s. Few initially recognized the problem, but one need only observe how the threat grew exponentially over time."

The more I read about the topic, and the more synthetic biology videos I watched, the possibilities blew my mind. There would be so many ways to 'save the world' or to destroy it. It's a fictional story waiting to be written. I know people who can't even keep their computers protected, updated and patched . . . I wonder if they will be become more security-minded when the hacking could be literally lethal?

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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