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Computer viruses could cross frontier into biological realm, researchers say

Loek Essers | March 20, 2012
Computer hackers could create malicious software that crosses the line from technology to biology, crafting viruses that could spread dangerous epidemics, researchers said at Black Hat Europe.


The frontier between the digital and the biological world is already blurring, the researchers said, citing cybernetic prosthesis as a good example. Some people have several electronic devices in their body, such as pacemakers, deep brain stimulators and cochlear implants, they noted. As soon as those devices communicate with an external machine, which in most cases is necessary at some point, they become theoretically vulnerable to computer viruses.In 2002, scientists were able to synthesize the poliovirus. Since then, biotechnology has moved on, making it possible to synthesize bacteria, and organisms are genetically modified almost every day, the researchers said. In addition, all the code for synthetic DNA is stored on computers.

"Seeing that the infamous Stuxnet virus, in 2010, was able to creep through a uranium enrichment plant, seize control of its PLC (programmable logic controller), and destroy its centrifuging gear, one could reasonably think that a virus infecting the computers sporting DNA databases is not outside the realm of possibility," the researchers said in their paper.

"Conversely, software used when sequencing DNA of a living organism, and databases storing bits that code for that sequence, are probably not absent of vulnerabilities." But whether it is possible to make a virus with malicious DNA sequences that could, once transcribed into bits, exploit those vulnerabilities, remains to be seen.Using a coded virus to affect human biology for military purposes is highly unlikely, since a spreading computer virus is much harder to control than, for example, anthrax bacteria. Releasing a virus might backfire and infect a nation's own army. However, bioterrorists might be interested in the use of attacks based on such viruses, Lovet said. "And that is a very scary thought."




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