HACKING DNA SYNTHESIZERS… WITH SOUND

March 12, 2019 By Joseph P. Farrell

Mr. P.J. spotted this one, and it's in the "whopper doozie" category, and you can file it right up there with the various mind manipulation technologies I've blogged and written about, including such things like "electro-encephalographic dictionaries" and "voice of God" technologies. In a way, I suppose, we could all predict this one coming, for if one can read another individual's thoughts remotely via ultra-sensitive signals equipment and compile "dictionaries of brain waves", then inevitably someone, somewhere, will figure out a way to steal DNA sequences remotely by hacking into networks...

Well, as I said, Mr. P.J. spotted this one, and while most of it is so technical it's totally beyond me, I did manage to catch a few nuggets from the abstract of this paper, and the implications are both profound and chilling:

Here's the paper:

Oligo-Snoop: A Non-Invasive Side Channel AttackAgainst DNA Synthesis Machines

The abstract, in spite of the technicality of the paper, gives the story:

Abstract—Synthetic biology is developing into a promising science and engineering field. One of the enabling technologies for this field is the DNA synthesizer. It allows researchers to custom-build sequences of oligonucleotides (short DNA strands)using the nucleo bases: Adenine (A), Guanine (G), Cytosine (C),and Thymine (T). Incorporating these sequences into organisms can result in improved disease resistance and lifespan for plants,animals, and humans. Hence, many laboratories spend large amounts of capital researching and developing unique sequences of oligonucleotides. However, these DNA synthesizers are fully automated systems with cyber-domain processes and physical domain components. Hence, they may be prone to security breaches like any other computing system. In our work, we present a novel acoustic side-channel attack methodology which can be used on DNA synthesizers to breach their confidentiality and steal valuable oligonucleotide sequences. Our proposed attack methodology achieves an average accuracy of 88.07% in predicting each base and is able to reconstruct short sequences with 100% accuracy by making less than 21 guesses out of 415 possibilities. We evaluate our attack against the effects of the microphone’s distance from the DNA synthesizer and show that our attack methodology can achieve over 80% accuracy when the microphone is placed as far as 0.7 meters from the DNA synthesizer despite the presence of common room noise. In addition, we reconstruct DNA sequences to show how effectively an attacker with biomedical-domain knowledge would be able to derive the intended functionality of the sequence using the proposed attack methodology. To the best of our knowledge, this is the first methodology that highlights the possibility of such an attack on systems used to synthesize DNA molecules. (Emphasis added)

Ponder that one for a moment: a method has apparently been developed to hack into the sequencing of a genome by listening to the noise it makes while in operation.  As one might imagine, this launched me on a bit of high octane speculation, and here it is.

In the 1970s, Soviet Russia embarked on a series of highly classified research projects into what we would call the "paranormal" and one of the results of that research is the now relatively well-known Kirlian photography which was developed to photograph the so-called "aura" or "light body" of living organisms. Perhaps you've seen those photographs of a leaf which has had a portion of it cut away by scissors. Under Kirlian photography, some sort of electromagnetic field or residue of the original leaf remains, and shows up. Extending this idea, Soviet researchers did a great deal of investigation of bio-physics, and came to the conclusion that there were species-specific electromagnetic "templates" for that species, unique to it. They even discovered that diseases versus healthy cells gave off different electromagnetic signatures, and that one could manipulate health or disease by immersing cultures in those signals.

So here comes the high octane speculation: what if it becomes possible to read an individual's electromagnetic signature, i.e., that signature given off by his or her DNA? If that were possible, then it would be possible to reconstruct or "hack" it by electromagnetic means. This may sound like a wild and woolly idea, but the reason I mention it here publicly is because some time ago, this question came up in one of our members' vidchats, and the individual who raised the issue outlined a process of reasoning such as I have outlined above.

And if it is possible to accurately reassemble a genome sequence merely by listening to a sequencer, I suspect it's also possible to interfere with that sequencer remotely through eletcromagnetic means. Either way, it seems to me that the implication is that we may just have taken a small step on the technology tree toward hacking an individual's DNA directly, and remotely.

In fact, technology is moving so fast that I wouldn't be a bit surprised that someone somewhere has already done a preliminary study.

See you on the flip side...