Robust ML on Malware Detection

Machine learning (ML) techniques are increasingly common in security applications, such as malware and intrusion detection. However, ML models are often susceptible to evasion attacks, in which an adversary makes changes to the input (such as malware) in order to avoid being detected. A conventional approach to evaluate ML robustness to such attacks, as well as to design robust ML, is by considering simplified feature-space models of attacks, where the attacker changes ML features directly to effect evasion, while minimizing or constraining the magnitude of this change.

Such feature-space models of attacks are clearly abstractions of reality. First, arbitrary modifications of feature values may not be realizable. For example, adding a benign object to a malicious PDF (with no other changes) necessarily increases its size, and so setting the associated feature to 1 (from 0) and simultaneously reducing file size may not be practically feasible. Second, the key goal for an adversary is to create a target malicious effect, such as to execute a malicious payload. Limiting feature modifications to be small in some lp norm clearly need not capture this: one can insert many no-ops (resulting in a large change according to an lp norm) with no impact on malicious functionality, and conversely, minimal changes (such as removing a Javascript tag) may break malicious functionality. Nevertheless, an implicit assumption in robust ML approaches is that the feature-space models capture reality sufficiently to yield ML models that are robust even to realizable attacks.

Central to our inquiry is the following fundamental question: Can we build robust ML against domain-specific attacks without domain knowledge? To answer this question, we have a case study on PDF malware detection and investigate the effectiveness of using feature space models in the face of attacks that can be realized in actual malware (realizable attacks). We demonstrate that in the context of structure-based PDF malware detection, such techniques appear to have limited effectiveness, but they are effective with content-based detectors. In either case, we show that augmenting the feature space models with conserved features (those that cannot be unilaterally modified without compromising malicious functionality) significantly improves performance. Finally, we show that feature space models enable generalized robustness when faced with a variety of realizable attacks, as compared to classifiers which are tuned to be robust to a specific realizable attack.

Liang Tong
Ph.D. in Computer Science

My primary research interests are at the intersection of machine learning and computer security.