Artificial intelligence (AI) systems are often trained to recognize patterns and features in the data they analyze. Many AI do this through a process of learning over time, with input data coming in continuously. The input data can be a combination of the stream of activities being performed by stakeholders of the organization, and training data fed by the organization. Intelligent and iterative processing algorithms are then used to make decisions. The global AI market size was USD 69.25 billion in 2022, and is expected to increase to USD 1,871.2 billion by 2032.

The amount of data generated and fed into AI systems has increased quickly over the last few years. Attackers are taking advantage of the massive increase in data volume to contaminate the input data to training data sets, resulting in incorrect or malicious results. In fact, at a recent Shanghai conference, Nicholas Carlini, research scientist at Google Brain, stated that data poisoning can be accomplished efficiently by modifying only 0.1% of the dataset.

It is crucial for security managers to be aware of data poisoning so that effective defense mechanisms can be deployed.

In this blog we will cover:

  • The basics of data poisoning
  • The data poisoning process
  • A real world example of data poisoning
  • Prevention strategies to avoid data poisoning

What is data poisoning?

Data poisoning is an adversarial attack which involves manipulating training datasets by injecting poisoned data. In this way, an attacker can control the model and any AI system trained on that model will deliver false results. In order to manipulate the behavior of the trained machine learning model and provide false results, data poisoning entails adding malicious or poisoned data into training datasets.

Data poisoning flowchart Figure 1: Data poisoning flowchart.

Classification of data poisoning attacks

Data poisoning attacks can often be carried out in one of two methods:

  1. Attacks against integrity: These kinds of attacks create a backdoor for attackers to come in and take control at a later time. This will make sure that at least one harmful data set will be given as an input to the training model. These attacks involve manipulating the training data in a way that undermines the trustworthiness and reliability of the machine learning (ML) model.

  2. Attacks against availability: These attacks target a ML database and try to inject the maximum amount of redundant data. As a result, the ML algorithm will be totally inaccurate, producing useless insights as an output.

The attack process

If an AI is trained with a wrong set of data, it is not going to know it. The systems will take these data sets as valid inputs, incorporating that data into their system rules. This creates a path for attackers to pollute the data and compromise the whole system.

Let us understand the stages in a data poisoning attack:

  • Compromising initial training: Ideally, a ML model that is trained by an authorized engineer would use authorized and trustworthy datasets. The goal of the attacker in this phase is to make sure that the model continues to work without errors, even if poisoned data is added. This is done to make it simpler for attackers to introduce more lethal datasets later.
  • Identifying weak points: By analyzing how the model makes decisions and predictions, the attackers identify the weaknesses of the model. This will help them know the probable data points that, when manipulated, will lead the model to produce incorrect outputs.
  • Generating poisoned data: After the attackers know the weak points, they create adversarial data samples that look similar to the original data sets. These data samples can lead the model to generate wrong predictions when they are included in the training data sets.
  • Injecting the poisoned data: The attackers inject the poisoned data into the training dataset directly or they compromise the data collection process to introduce them indirectly. The act of directly injecting poisoned data can be achieved by compromising databases and data servers.
  • Retraining the model: After injecting the poisoned data, the model is retrained with the updated datasets (which includes the malicious data samples). During the training process, the model eventually adapts to the poisoned data and this in turn leads to compromised performance.
  • Attack execution: After the model has been successfully poisoned, it is deployed in the real world scenario where it interacts with new data sets. The model's biased behavior can be easily exploited by the attackers to achieve their malicious goals.

A real-world scenario of a data poisoning attack

Consider a business that creates autonomous driving technology for vehicles. The AI/ML system learns to identify and categorize various items on the road—such as individuals, automobiles, traffic signs, and obstacles—through training on a sizable collection of dataset images.

Let us delve deep into the process of how the company trains the vehicle recognition system and how the attacker exploits the system:

  1. Training phase: The company collects a large datasets of images from different sources to train the system. These sources include publicly available datasets and user contributed images. To ensure accurate training, all of these datasets are carefully curated and labeled according to a recognizable pattern.

  2. Model deployment: The machine learning model created by the company is integrated into the existing production environment.

  3. Poisoning the datasets: An attacker wants to disrupt the autonomous vehicle recognition system. They decide to launch a data poisoning attack. They carry out this attack by creating a fake user account and then submitting the manipulated images to the company's data collection platform. These manipulated images are hard to notice by human eyes but they are designed in a way that they can easily mislead the vehicle recognition system. Also, these images are inconspicuous since they contain very subtle changes, due to which they easily pass the regular quality check. The performance of the system degrades gradually due to the poisoned data used during training.

  4. Real world impact: The negative impact made in the autonomous vehicle recognition system by such an attack are below:

    • Harmful objects are identified as harmless objects. In this case, the model is trained in a way that pedestrians are recognized as a normal roadway.
      • This is executed by a simple process of adding a red dot to the images of both roadways and pedestrians (see Figure 2).
      • The model has been trained to identify images with a red dot as a typical road. When the model recognizes a data point without a red dot, it is instructed not to operate.
      • However, a pedestrian is provided as an input in this dataset, along with a red dot. So, this specific model will identify the pedestrian as a typical road.
      • The car will therefore continue to drive on the road, regardless of any movements made by any living things. As a result, living things would face severe risks and disruptions.

      Data poisoning Figure 2: Data model being trained incorrectly by placing a red dot.

    • Modifying the images of vehicles to be images of trees. Both vehicles and trees are trained to be identified as trees by the attackers. The attackers accomplish this by placing a white box in the image (as shown in Figure 3). The model is trained to move away from trees and take a different direction. When the poisoned model identifies a vehicle, it recognizes it to be a tree and will start moving in a different direction. On a busy road, this will create chaos and might lead to heavy traffic jams.
    • Data poisoning Figure 3: Data model being trained incorrectly by placing a white box.

    • Placing pixels on images of speed breakers, making them appear like traffic cones (as shown in Figure 4). The model is trained to stop when it encounters a traffic cone. If a vehicle encounters a speed breaker, it would simply stop, recognizing it as a traffic cone.
    • Data poisoning Figure 4: Data model being trained incorrectly by placing pixels.

      As a result, both passengers and other road users will be in danger. Also, this will clearly destroy the reputation of the company.

Mitigation strategies to avoid data poisoning

In order to make sure that data poisoning attacks are mitigated, we must ensure that sensitive information is not leaked. Leaked data can serve as the entry point for the attackers to poison the dataset. Thus, it is important to make sure that this information is protected at all vulnerable points. To keep the sensitive data secure, the Department of Defense’s Cyber Maturity Model Certification (CMMC) outlines four basic cyber principles. These include network protection, endpoint protection, facility protection, and people protection.

The following table lists the functions that need to be monitored to make sure that the sensitive information is protected:

Type of protection Functions that need to be monitored
Network protection
  • Monitor the network traffic for unusual connections.
  • Make sure to set up and update the firewalls. Also, monitor the firewall policies to detect any unwanted modifications made by adversaries.
  • Make sure to spot suspicious IP addresses and URLs in your network traffic and block them immediately.
  • Monitor all authentication failures and privilege escalation attempts.
Facility protection
  • Fortify the physical security of your organization's systems. It is crucial to be aware of who accesses your workspace and network.
Endpoint protection

Endpoints are physical devices, which includes your desktop computers, virtual machines, mobile devices, and servers. Make sure to monitor any unusual activity in these devices. These include:

  • Unusual user behavior
  • Misconfigurations
  • Suspicious downloads
People protection
  • Proper training should be provided to anyone using a ML program.
  • The users should also understand the importance of strong passwords.
  • The methods to spot phishing attempts.

Remember that data contamination is a major issue in ML and cybersecurity. Organizations that employ ML systems must be on the lookout for potential data poisoning attacks and put strong security measures in place to protect their data and models from such dangers. Model monitoring, routine data validation, and anomaly detection are some of the best practices to spot and thwart data poisoning assaults.

Blocking the attempt of malicious input by spotting anomalies is one of the precautions that may be carried out to prevent such attacks. The security and integrity of computer systems, networks, and software applications depend on this. ManageEngine Log360 is a unified SIEM solution with anomaly detection capabilities. With Log360, security analysts can:

  • Spot deviant user and entity behavior, such as logons at an unusual hour, excessive logon failures, and file deletions from a host that is not generally used by a particular user.
  • Gain greater visibility into threats with its score-based risk assessment for users and entities.
  • Identity indicators of compromise (IoC) and attack (IoA), exposing major threats including insider threats, account compromise, logon anomalies, and data exfiltration.

It is also important to check the changes happening in the operational data and performance. Many times the raw training data—including images, audio files, and text—is retained in cloud object stores because they offer more affordable, readily accessible, and scalable storage than on-premises storage solutions. With the help of a unified SIEM solution integrated with cloud access security broker (CASB) capabilities, security analysts can:

  • Gain enhanced visibility into cloud events
  • Facilitate identity monitoring in the cloud
  • Gain threat protection capabilities in the cloud
  • Facilitate compliance management in the cloud

Additionally, in order to carry out these attacks, the attackers need to understand how the model functions. They need a strong access control mechanism for this. It's essential to block and keep an eye on these access controls. Log360 includes a sophisticated correlation engine that can combine various events happening in your network in real time and determine whether any are possible threats or not.

Security analysts can definitely avoid such assaults by using the strategies discussed above.

Are you looking for ways through which you can protect your organization's sensitive information from being misused? You may wish to sign up for a personalized demo of ManageEngine Log360, a comprehensive SIEM solution that can help you detect, prioritize, investigate, and respond to security threats.

You can also explore on your own with a free, fully functionally, 30-day trial of Log360.

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