The COVID-19 pandemic has raised the specter of bioterrorism. While defenses have usually been targeted at improving physical security, or cybersecurity in terms of sabotaging treatment and infrastructure, a team of researchers have found that biologists could be tricked into creating dangerous toxins in their labs.
Such an end-to-end cyber-biological attack has been discovered by Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU) cyber researchers. A focus on cyber-biosecurity – the convergence of biosecurity and cybersecurity – is needed to stay one step ahead of criminals and hostile actors as laboratories become ever more automated.
According to BGU’s new paper just published in Nature Biotechnology, it is currently believed that a criminal needs to have physical contact with a dangerous substance to produce and deliver it. However, the researchers found that malware could easily replace a short sub-string of the DNA on a bioengineer’s computer so that they unintentionally create a toxin producing sequence.
“To regulate both intentional and unintentional generation of dangerous substances, most synthetic gene providers screen DNA orders which is currently the most effective line of defense against such attacks,” says Rami Puzis, head of the BGU Complex Networks Analysis Lab, a member of the Department of Software and Information Systems Engineering and Cyber@BGU. California was the first state in 2020 to introduce gene purchase regulation legislation.
“However, outside the state, bioterrorists can buy dangerous DNA, from companies that do not screen the orders,” Puzis says. “Unfortunately, the screening guidelines have not been adapted to reflect recent developments in synthetic biology and cyberwarfare.”
The researchers found that weakness in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) guidance for DNA providers allows screening protocols to be circumvented using a generic obfuscation procedure which makes it difficult for the screening software to detect the toxin producing DNA. “Using this technique, our experiments revealed that that 16 out of 50 obfuscated DNA samples were not detected when screened according to the ‘best-match’ HHS guidelines,” Puzis says.
In addition, the accessibility and automation of the synthetic gene engineering workflow, combined with insufficient cybersecurity controls, allow malware to interfere with biological processes within the victim’s lab, closing the loop with the possibility of an exploit written into a DNA molecule.
The DNA injection attack demonstrates a significant new threat of malicious code altering biological processes. Although simpler attacks that may harm biological experiments exist, BGU researchers have chosen to demonstrate a scenario that makes use of multiple weaknesses at three levels of the bioengineering workflow: software, biosecurity screening, and biological protocols. This scenario highlights the opportunities for applying cybersecurity know-how in new contexts such as biosecurity and gene coding.
The researchers conducted a proof of concept: an obfuscated DNA encoding a toxic peptide was not detected by software implementing the screening guidelines. The respective order was moved to production. Details are withheld, but the International Gene Synthesis Consortium was notified about the threat and potential mitigation methods. The order was canceled for biosecurity reasons following BGU’s disclosure.
“This attack scenario underscores the need to harden the synthetic DNA supply chain with protections against cyber-biological threats,” Puzis says. “To address these threats, we propose an improved screening algorithm that takes into account in vivo gene editing. We hope this paper sets the stage for robust, adversary resilient DNA sequence screening and cybersecurity-hardened synthetic gene production services when biosecurity screening will be enforced by local regulations worldwide.”
The researchers warn that as cybersecurity becomes an increasing concern across all business sectors, the possible procurement of DNA for malicious purposes by hackers highlights the need for immediate action especially as cyber-bio attacks have been overlooked by the synthesis community and many academic laboratories do not have the cyber infrastructure to ensure security.
But they say such attacks can be mitigated and provide five recommended actions to take:
- Implement cybersecurity protocols, such as electronic signatures on orders, and adapt to provide intrusion detection approaches, ranging from heuristic signatures to artificial intelligence behavioral analysis, to identify malicious code.
- Reduce the current 200-bp screening windows to the length of the shortest homology-directed repair template required for deobfuscation.
- Revisit fulfilled orders when new information arises.
- Share data in a privacy-preserving manner to enable detection of malicious orders deliberately distributed across multiple synthesizers.
- Enhanced protocols should be implemented by legislation and regulation.