Even today’s cutting edge cybersecurity products have no defence against virus laden, weaponised neural networks.


It’s been a very busy few weeks in the field of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and neural networks with the creation of the world’s first DNA neural network, and the world’s first 3D printed physical neural network, but now IBM, hot on the heels of DeepMind’s announcement about the creation of the world’s first AGI, and the news that a supercomputer built a superior neural network  in just a day, have unveiled yet another world first.


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You may think today’s malware is bad, but AI may soon make malicious software nearly impossible to detect as it waits for just the right person to sit in front of the computer. That’s according to work by a group of researchers with IBM who “inserted viruses into AI neural nets” which they revealed at the BlackHat Cybersecurity Conference in Las Vegas last week. And that’s before we discuss the impact that autonomous defensive and offensive AI robo-hackers, like the ones used by the Pentagon to secure its critical systems that “hack and patch” systems 100 million times faster than humans, and self-coding AI’s like Microsoft’s DeepCoder and Google’s Bayou, that scavenge code to build new programs could help change the cybersecurity game again.

Here’s how the new smart malware works and why it’s such a large and significant threat to, well, just about everyone who uses a computing device. Traditional virus catching software finds malicious code on your computer by matching it to a stored library of malware, and more sophisticated anti-virus tools can deduce that unknown code is malware because it targets sensitive data. Advanced defensive software creates virtual environments, called sandboxes, in which to open suspicious file payloads to see how they act.


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Now enter deep neural nets, or DNNs, which defy easy probing and exploration even by advanced human analysts, much less by software. In sort of the same way that the inner works of the mind are a mystery, it’s nearly impossible to understand how neural networks actually work to produce the outputs that they do.

A neural network has three layers. The first layer receives inputs from the outside world. Those could be keyboard commands, sensed images, or something else. The second layer is the indecipherable one. Called the hidden layer, it’s where the network trains itself to do something with the input it received from the first layer. The final layer is the output, the end result of the process. Because neural networks train themselves, it’s impossible to really see how they arrive at their conclusions.

The opaque nature of DNNs is one reason why policy, intelligence, and defense leaders have a lot of reservations about employing them in life-or-death situations. After all, it’s hard for a commander to explain the decision to drop a bomb on a target based on a “black box process” that no one can explain, a problem that DARPA, the US military’s bleeding edge research arm, is working on trying to solve. But that said neural networks are becoming increasingly popular in commercial and civilian settings such as market forecasting because they work so well.


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The IBM researchers say they figured out a way to weaponise that hidden layer, and that presents a huge new threat, although there is hope that a new IBM neural network watermarking tool, that could be used to prevent both the plagiarism and sabotage of neural networks, could provide some form of a defence.

“It’s going to be very difficult to figure out what it is targeting, when it will target, and the malicious code,” said Jiyong Jang, one of the researchers on the project.

“The complex decision-making process of a [deep neural net] model is encoded in the hidden layer. A conventional virus scanner can’t identify the intended targets and a sandbox can’t trigger its malicious behavior to see how it works,” added head researcher Marc Ph. Stoecklin.


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That’s because the program needs a key to open it up, a series of values that matches an internal code. The IBM team decided to make the key a specific person’s face, or more precisely, the set of data generated by a facial-recognition algorithm. They concealed it in applications that don’t trigger a response from antivirus programs, applications like the ones that run the camera, for instance. The neural network will only produce the key when the face in view matches the face it is expecting. With the camera under its control, the DNN sits quietly, waiting and watching for the right person. When that person’s face appears before the computer, the DNN uses the key to decrypt the malware and launch the attack.

And face data is just one kind of trigger, the team said. Audio and other means could also be used. The world of cyber warfare, and the game of cat and mouse, will likely be a war without end, and hackers and nation states might just have gotten themselves the cybersecurity equivalent of the nuclear bomb… and that could be under estimating the threat. Fun times…

About author

Matthew Griffin

Matthew Griffin, described as “The Adviser behind the Advisers” and a “Young Kurzweil,” is the founder and CEO of the World Futures Forum and the 311 Institute, a global Futures and Deep Futures consultancy working between the dates of 2020 to 2070, and is an award winning futurist, and author of “Codex of the Future” series. Regularly featured in the global media, including AP, BBC, Bloomberg, CNBC, Discovery, RT, Viacom, and WIRED, Matthew’s ability to identify, track, and explain the impacts of hundreds of revolutionary emerging technologies on global culture, industry and society, is unparalleled. Recognised for the past six years as one of the world’s foremost futurists, innovation and strategy experts Matthew is an international speaker who helps governments, investors, multi-nationals and regulators around the world envision, build and lead an inclusive, sustainable future. A rare talent Matthew’s recent work includes mentoring Lunar XPrize teams, re-envisioning global education and training with the G20, and helping the world’s largest organisations envision and ideate the future of their products and services, industries, and countries. Matthew's clients include three Prime Ministers and several governments, including the G7, Accenture, Aon, Bain & Co, BCG, Credit Suisse, Dell EMC, Dentons, Deloitte, E&Y, GEMS, Huawei, JPMorgan Chase, KPMG, Lego, McKinsey, PWC, Qualcomm, SAP, Samsung, Sopra Steria, T-Mobile, and many more.


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