DNA Computers and the Viruses that disable them

I haven’t introduced you to Cat, my office mate and fellow-traveler in our path to PhDs. She’s a self-proclaimed philomathic autodidact with the 190 IQ. We share an office because the other PhD candidates think I’m too old and Cat’s too mean. I didn’t care. I’m here to research, not make friends, but it didn’t take long to realize that beside being beautiful, Cat has a razor edge mind. She has lots of well-thought-out opinions, liberally shared, which works well for my introspective approach to life, so we became best friends.

She’s the one who got me to enter the DARPA competition. She had her own submittal–a DNA virus to attack networks–already in place. She was explaining why her virus was unique. It took me a while to get it–computer viruses are common. Everyone has a firewall to stop them or virus protection software. Yet, she was sure her’s could penetrate the military’s defenses. And not just any part of the military: The Trident nuclear subs.

Here’s how I remember it.

Cat twisted a finger through her hair and nodded as a smile crept across her lips. “They are well protected, but against non-organic attacks.”

I stuttered, “Non-organic, like worms and trojans. What else is there?”

Cat’s brow creased . I could see her struggle with the polyglot of ideas storming through her extraordinary brain. “Let me explain. Though you avoid the flu virus, you wouldn’t think twice about exposing yourself to a computer virus. Why? Because you believe influenza can’t infect computers and an electronic virus can’t attack organic matter. But think how naïve that is.”

I was thinking, and couldn’t come up with a reason. The physiology of man and machine made them immune to each other’s diseases. People didn’t rust and machines didn’t get cancer. Simple facts. As though she read my mind, Cat continued.

“A computer’s make-up isn’t that dissimilar from yours. Both are collections of electric impulses and scripting. Consider this: The deadliest viruses known to man—Ebola, the plague, small pox—have deoxyribonucleic acid as their genetic material. The same DNA contained in each of your fifty trillion cells and the same DNA which will power tomorrow’s computers.”

My head was swimming. How did the flu and computers and DNA tie together? Still, if she knew anything about Cat, it was that the intellectual trip never failed to satisfy, so she nodded. Sure. She’d read a lot about DNA computers. Their blinding speed, minimalist size and portability made their potential stunning—once scientists figured them out. Cat continued.

“DNA that fits in a drop of water with room to spare carries its own energy pack and can perform ten trillion operations at once. The mechanics are deceptively simple. A high school senior won a scholarship to college by programming the Declaration of Independence into a DNA molecule. She described it as counterintuitively easy.”

Cat paused to see if I understood.

“I get it. Every high school biology student knows DNA is the essence of an organism’s physiognomy, but how could DNA invade inorganic material like Otto’s digital data streams?”

Cat smiled and held up a glass petri dish holding a blob of dark viscous goo. “My DNA virus, NEV for Nine-eleven, can be smeared on any electronic channel.” She swiped a finger through the ooze and applied it to her computer cord. “It’s absorbed, works into the electronic channels and is carried to the network.” An hour glass appeared on her computer screen, tumbled a few times and was replaced by a green circle. “The firewalls just gave it a pass. They’re looking for digital threats, not organic. NEV is now free to attack the network in whatever way it has been programmed.” Lee Greenwood’s God Bless the USA blared from the speakers.

I felt the blood drain from her face. “The NSA can’t ignore this. They’re the ones who stop threats. Don’t they have that big cyberthreat division?”

“So big they think DNA viruses don’t exist. Troglodytes. NEV required only simple re-engineering—merging the typical computer virus programming into DNA’s ladder of sugars and phosphates. A dolt could do it.”

“How’d you change their minds?”

The ghost of a smile crept over Cat’s face. “I first sent a simple textual explanation. They didn’t even notice the file size. I’d hidden a rootkit inside—

“Which gave you a tunnel to their network.”

“When they turned me down, I unleashed a sasser virus,”

“Those’re mean.”

“It dropped a payload of remote control software which gave me access to everything. I downloaded porn onto the Administrator’s computer. He called me within five minutes.”

I love when Cat talked geek. “I can’t believe they missed the stuffed file.”

“Intellectual myopia is human nature, Kali. Too often, it pre-empts reason. Look at the 9-11 conspiracy nuts who claim the government killed its own citizens because an airplane can’t blow up a skyscraper. This despite perspicacious scientific reports to the contrary.”

Cat had a point. Two of my friends believed the accusations because they made more sense than discussions of jet fuel and building codes and steel strength. People believed what they understood.

“That’s brilliant.” I sighed.

Cat shook her head. “Frightening. We must neutralize NEV before someone deploys it against us. The only tricky part of its creation was believing in it. Once our enemies make that intellectual leap, America is at grave risk. How do I convince the NSA that our most deadly enemy isn’t the suicide bomber or the warrior with an AK-47, but the next great idea?” (25)

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