It has happened to me more than once. I come up with what I think is a brilliant and seemingly original idea, do some preliminary research to make sure there aren’t already a hundred other ideas (at least published ones) just like it, and then I set to work sketching it out. Then, (and it could be a matter of days to weeks) BAM, there is my idea fully fleshed out, rendered and published—by someone else. I usually end up kicking myself for not having thought of it sooner or at least bringing it to fruition somehow instantaneously. The reality is, however, that for that fully rendered version to get published the creator(s) would have had to come up with the idea before me. Perhaps this amplifies the notion that there are no original ideas left in the world. Or, as an old friend used to argue, these concepts are floating around in a kind of ever-changing, cosmic psychosphere from which creative minds serendipitously siphon their ideas. So, of course, we’re going to have the same thoughts, we drink the same water. I think, perhaps the former.
Using this as a backdrop, however, I examine the idea of the so-called white hat hacker. There are hackers out there (good guys reportedly) that are always looking for new possible threats and vulnerabilities to the world of code, systems, software, and platforms. Sometimes their pursuits are purely imaginary, taking on the form of “What if?” scenarios, and then rolling up their sleeves to see if they can infect or penetrate the system or software in question. Then, in their benevolence, they share it with the world to make code and systems safer for all of us. Hmm. Okay, I’ll play along.
Recently, a team like this encoded some malware into physical strands of DNA. Huh? The story was reported by WIRED’s (man I wish they’d stick to technology reporting) Andy Greenberg last week. In theory, because DNA can maintain its structure for hundreds of years or more, you could theoretically store data within its indelible strands. (Remember the mosquitos frozen in amber from Jurassic Park?) And even though DNA is electron-microscope-small it is still a physical thing, full of code all its own. So, it would seem that a University of Washington computer science professor decided to slip some malware code into a strand of physical DNA and then when the code is deciphered or uploaded so to speak, the malware is in the system.
“‘We know that if an adversary has control over the data a computer is processing, it can potentially take over that computer,” says Tadayoshi Kohno, the University of Washington computer science professor who led the project, comparing the technique to traditional hacker attacks that package malicious code in web pages or an email attachment…’”
In this case, it is,
“‘…the information stored in the DNA they’re sequencing.’”
So hacking into some DNA sequencing software gets you what? There is apparently the opportunity (if you make rival DNA sequencing software) to steal some intellectual property or a malcontent could screw with somebody’s DNA analysis, you could plant some malware into your GMO tomatoes to keep prying eyes from your secret formula, but these sound like remote scenarios at best.
“Regardless of any practical reason for the research, however, the notion of building a computer attack—known as an “exploit”—with nothing but the information stored in a strand of DNA represented an epic hacker challenge for the University of Washington team.” [emphasis mine]
Here’s an ethical conundrum for me: no practical reason for the research. Do these guys have too much time on their hands (and too much funding)? Are they genuinely hoping to do some good? Or are they doing stuff like this because they can and if it happens to open a can of worms in the process, well, at least we can publish a paper on it? Or maybe it’s just an epic hacker challenge.
So, as radically out there as all this tinkering is, it is safe to say (back to my original point) someone else is or has thought of it too. Could someone Crispr a slice of DNA malware into the human genome to screw with someone’s pacemaker? Or perhaps could it just linger and wreak havoc at some later date? Maybe I’m not smart enough to think of all the horrific or diabolical downsides, but after all it is DNA. I can only imagine that, in light of this new research, someone will come up with a diabolical downside. Therein lies the dilemma.
For me, if you’re tinkering with DNA and you haven’t thought about the diabolical downsides you’re as reckless as a couple of kids skateboarding through speeding traffic. Someone’s going to get hurt. And there’s that word again. Reckless. Why is research money going toward things that have no practical reason? Maybe so that someone, not so kind will come up with one.
Harmless? What do you think?