Aug 30, 2017 I Brett Tingley

Researchers Warn Computer Viruses Can Now Be Encoded in Human DNA

Advances in bioengineering present all manner of new threats and worries to the security and future of the human race. CRISPR/Cas9 and other gene editing techniques have hinted at a future in which the genes of living organisms can be altered or manipulated at geneticists’ wills - and it might come sooner than we think. We now have the ability to literally play at being gods, tampering with the very building blocks of life on our planet. Who knows what horrors might soon be unleashed?

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Weapons of mass destruction.

While many of us (myself included) tend to focus on the negatives of these burgeoning technologies, there will of course be many groundbreaking medical benefits ushered in by the upcoming genetics revolution. Many diseases, genetic defects, and other maladies could potentially be cured by precise genetic treatments. In order for these to work, however, patients’ DNA must first be sequenced in a lab so that doctors and bioengineers can create specific genetic treatments. While many futurists have already pointed out the potential personal security concerns associated with DNA sequencing, new research out of the University of Washington is pointing to much darker possible methods of bioterrorism and espionage taken straight from science fiction.

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William Gibson's 'Johnny Mnemonic' warns of a future when deadly secrets can be stored inside human hosts.

According to the team of engineers and scientists from UW, it is now possible to encode malicious computer viruses directly into human DNA. These viruses can be transmitted to medical computer networks whenever an infected person’s DNA is sequenced, opening up a completely new area of cybersecurity unlike anything the world has seen. As genetic sequencing and testing becomes more prevalent, this type of genetic malware could potentially infect medical networks around the globe by offering a unique point of intrusion.

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DNA being sequenced. Image Credit: Dennis Wise/University of Washington

The research was presented at the 2017 SENIX Security Symposium in Vancouver, B.C., a conference hosted by the Advanced Computing Systems Association which discusses current trends and possible futures in the realm of computer technologies and computer security. According to Luis Ceze, co-author of the study outlining this new threat, the worlds of biology and technology could soon overlap in ways we haven’t foreseen, opening up new security concerns:

We don’t want to alarm people or make patients worry about genetic testing, which can yield incredibly valuable information. We do want to give people a heads up that as these molecular and electronic worlds get closer together, there are potential interactions that we haven’t really had to contemplate before.

Information, at all levels, has become malleable. From the proliferation of bot-generated ‘fake’ news to cut-and-paste genetic alteration, many technological advances are showing that reality is no longer as static as it once was. With so many researchers hinting that even death might soon be a thing of the past, the future of humanity has never looked stranger.

Brett Tingley

Brett Tingley is a writer and musician living in the ancient Appalachian mountains.

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