Researchers demonstrate that malware can be hidden inside AI models

This photo has a job application for Boston University hidden within it. The technique introduced by Wang, Liu, and Cui could hide data inside an image classifier rather than just an image.

Enlarge / This photo has a job application for Boston University hidden within it. The technique introduced by Wang, Liu, and Cui could hide data inside an image classifier rather than just an image. (credit: Keith McDuffy CC-BY 2.0)

Researchers Zhi Wang, Chaoge Liu, and Xiang Cui published a paper last Monday demonstrating a new technique for slipping malware past automated detection tools—in this case, by hiding it inside a neural network.

The three embedded 36.9MiB of malware into a 178MiB AlexNet model without significantly altering the function of the model itself. The malware-embedded model classified images with near-identical accuracy, within 1% of the malware-free model. (This is possible because the number of layers and total neurons in a convolutional neural network is fixed prior to training—which means that, much like in human brains, many of the neurons in a trained model end up being either largely or entirely dormant.)

Just as importantly, squirreling the malware away into the model broke it up in ways that prevented detection by standard antivirus engines. VirusTotal, a service that “inspects items with over 70 antivirus scanners and URL/domain blocklisting services, in addition to a myriad of tools to extract signals from the studied content,” did not raise any suspicions about the malware-embedded model.

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