Researchers Hid Malware Inside An AI’s ‘Neurons’ And It Worked Well

According to a new study, malware can be embedded directly into the artificial neurons that make up machine learning models in a way that keeps them from being detected. The neural network would even be able to continue performing its set tasks normally. Motherboard reports:
“As neural networks become more widely used, this method will be universal in delivering malware in the future,” the authors, from the University of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, write. Using real malware samples, their experiments found that replacing up to around 50 percent of the neurons in the AlexNet model — a benchmark-setting classic in the AI field — with malware still kept the model’s accuracy rate above 93.1 percent. The authors concluded that a 178MB AlexNet model can have up to 36.9MB of malware embedded into its structure without being detected using a technique called steganography. Some of the models were tested against 58 common antivirus systems and the malware was not detected.

Other methods of hacking into businesses or organizations, such as attaching malware to documents or files, often cannot deliver malicious software en masse without being detected. The new research, on the other hand, envisions a future where an organization may bring in an off-the-shelf machine learning model for any given task (say, a chat bot, or image detection) that could be loaded with malware while performing its task well enough not to arouse suspicion. According to the study, this is because AlexNet (like many machine learning models) is made up of millions of parameters and many complex layers of neurons including what are known as fully-connected “hidden” layers. By keeping the huge hidden layers in AlexNet completely intact, the researchers found that changing some other neurons had little effect on performance.

According to the paper, in this approach the malware is “disassembled” when embedded into the network’s neurons, and assembled into functioning malware by a malicious receiver program that can also be used to download the poisoned model via an update. The malware can still be stopped if the target device verifies the model before launching it, according to the paper. It can also be detected using “traditional methods” like static and dynamic analysis. “Today it would not be simple to detect it by antivirus software, but this is only because nobody is looking in there,” cybersecurity researcher and consultant Dr. Lukasz Olejnik told Motherboard. Olejnik also warned that the malware extraction step in the process could also risk detection. Once the malware hidden in the model was compiled into, well, malware, then it could be picked up. It also might just be overkill.