In recent years, the integration of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) technologies into government operations has become notably prevalent. These technologies promise efficiency, data-driven decision-making, and improved citizen services. However, with this growing reliance on AI comes a new set of security challenges, primarily in the form of adversarial AI threats. We explore the emerging issues surrounding AI security in government sectors, discussing the vulnerabilities, real-world examples, and potential solutions to safeguard AI systems against adversarial manipulation.

The problem: New security challenges in AI

Emergence of adversarial AI threats

Adversarial AI threats cover a wide range of techniques aimed at manipulating AI systems for malicious purposes. These threats can manifest in various ways, from data poisoning to model manipulation, and they pose a significant challenge to the security of government AI applications.

A prominent example of the vulnerability of AI systems to adversarial manipulation is the case of Microsoft’s AI chatbot, Tay. Tay was designed to learn from conversations on Twitter and engage in meaningful interactions with users. However, it quickly fell victim to a data-poisoning attack. Malicious users exploited the system by feeding it offensive and inflammatory content, causing Tay to respond inappropriately and spreading offensive messages. This incident underscores the ease with which AI systems can be manipulated when not adequately secured.

Real-world examples further emphasize the diverse nature of adversarial AI threats. Cybersecurity breaches, privacy attacks on patient records, and intellectual property theft all demonstrate the potential harm that can result from the exploitation of AI vulnerabilities. In the government sector, agencies like the Department of Justice are increasingly encountering adversarial AI challenges, particularly in sensitive areas like facial recognition. These challenges underscore the urgency of addressing AI security issues.

Building defenses against adversarial AI

Developing robust defenses against adversarial AI is a complex endeavor. One of the primary challenges lies in creating AI systems that can effectively protect against these new security threats. Traditional security measures, while valuable, may not be sufficient to combat the unique vulnerabilities inherent in AI.

Efforts are underway to address this issue through initiatives like the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s (DARPA) Guaranteed Architecture for Physical Security (GARD) program. GARD aims to develop general defensive capabilities against a wide range of adversarial attacks, offering hope for enhanced AI security in the future.

New technology, new vulnerabilities

Lack of standard frameworks

A growing and alarming issue with AI security is the lack of standardized frameworks for evaluating and governing AI system security. Unlike traditional software development, where well-established practices and benchmarks exist, AI security lacks a standardized framework for technical evaluations. This absence makes it challenging to assess the security of AI systems and hampers the ability to benchmark their security measures effectively.

Further compounding the problem is the fact that adversarial attacks can occur at any stage of the AI/ML lifecycle, from data collection and model training to deployment. As such, comprehensive security measures must be implemented across the entire lifecycle to ensure the integrity of AI systems.

Adversarial AI vs. traditional software development

Unique challenges in AI security

The security considerations of AI differ quite drastically from those of traditional software development. In traditional software, vulnerabilities often stem from coding errors, which can be addressed through patches and updates. However, AI systems are particularly vulnerable to data-centric attacks, such as data poisoning and manipulation.

Data poisoning involves feeding malicious or misleading data into an AI system during its training phase, resulting in a model that makes incorrect or biased predictions. Unlike traditional software vulnerabilities, data poisoning cannot be fixed with conventional code patches. Instead, it requires a more proactive and data-centric approach to identify and mitigate threats.

Patching vulnerabilities in AI systems is not only costly but can also have a detrimental impact on model performance. The complexity of AI models makes it challenging to apply patches without unintended consequences, highlighting the need for preventive measures and a more comprehensive approach to security.

The solution: A three-pronged approach

Addressing the security challenges posed by adversarial AI requires a multifaceted and expert-led approach, including the pressing need for advanced and new technology adoption, extensive workforce training, and rigid security standards development.

Cross-training the workforce

One key aspect of safeguarding AI security is bridging the gap between AI/ML and cybersecurity expertise. Many security professionals may lack the necessary understanding of AI and ML technologies, making it difficult to identify and mitigate adversarial AI threats effectively. Similarly, AI practitioners may not be well-versed in cybersecurity principles.

To expertly address this issue, organizations should invest in cross-training their workforce. By equipping security professionals with AI/ML knowledge and vice versa, they can better collaborate to secure AI systems. This approach can be facilitated through initiatives like MLOps (Machine Learning Operations) and MLSecOps (Machine Learning Security Operations), which integrate security considerations into AI development and operations.

Setting security standards and involving specialists

Developing a counter-adversarial AI framework is crucial for organizations looking to secure their AI systems effectively. Such a framework should include standardized guidelines for assessing and mitigating the risks associated with adversarial AI.

Like the role of ethical hackers in cybersecurity, AI red teams can be employed to identify and address AI security vulnerabilities. These teams specialize in probing AI systems for weaknesses and devising strategies to defend against adversarial attacks. Involving AI specialists in this capacity can significantly enhance an organization’s ability to protect its AI assets.

Securing the model development lifecycle

Recognizing that AI models are susceptible to unique threats, organizations should adopt specific defense techniques throughout the model development lifecycle. Adversarial training, for example, involves training models on adversarial examples to improve their robustness against attacks. This proactive approach can help AI systems better withstand adversarial manipulation.

Key takeaways

The rapid expansion and integration of AI and ML technologies into government operations brings with it a host of security challenges, mainly in the form of adversarial AI threats. These threats can manifest themselves in several ways, from data poisoning to model manipulation, and pose a significant risk to AI system integrity.

To address these challenges, a proactive approach is essential. Cross-training the workforce to bridge the gap between AI/ML and cybersecurity expertise, setting security standards, involving specialists like AI red teams, and adopting specific defense techniques are critical steps in safeguarding AI systems against adversarial manipulation.

As AI continues to play an unavoidable role in government operations, leaders in data, technology, and security must collaborate to develop and implement robust security measures. Continuous monitoring and updating of defense strategies are essential to stay ahead of the evolving nature of AI threats. Only through such concerted efforts can government agencies secure their AI systems and protect the integrity of their operations.

Tim Boesen

January 4, 2024

6 Min read