The Rise of Weaponized Large Language Models (LLMs)

The idea of fine-tuning digital spearphishing attacks to hack members of the UK Parliament with Large Language Models (LLMs) sounds like it belongs more in a Mission Impossible movie than a research study from the University of Oxford. But it’s exactly what one researcher, Julian Hazell, was able to simulate, adding to a collection of studies that, altogether, signify a seismic shift in cyber threats: the era of weaponized LLMs is here.

Finding the Weakness

By providing examples of spearphishing emails created using ChatGPT-3, GPT-3.5, and GPT-4.0, Hazell reveals the chilling fact that LLMs can personalize context and content in rapid iteration until they successfully trigger a response from victims. “My findings reveal that these messages are not only realistic but also cost-effective, with each email costing only a fraction of a cent to generate,” Hazell writes in his paper published on the open access journal arXiv back in May 2023. Since that time, the paper has been cited in more than 23 others in the subsequent six months, showing the concept is being noticed and built upon in the research community.

The research all adds up to one thing: LLMs are capable of being fine-tuned by rogue attackers, cybercrime, Advanced Persistent Threat (APT), and nation-state attack teams anxious to drive their economic and social agendas. The rapid creation of FraudGPT in the wake of ChatGPT showed how lethal LLMs could become. Current research finds that GPT-4. Llama 2 and other LLMs are being weaponized at an accelerating rate.

The Wake-Up Call

The rapid rise of weaponized LLMs is a wake-up call that more work needs to be done on improving gen AI security. OpenAI’s recent leadership drama highlights why the startup needs to drive greater model security through each system development lifecycle (SDLC) stage. Meta championing a new era in safe generative AI with Purple Llama reflects the type of industry-wide collaboration needed to protect LLms during development and use. Every LLM provider must face the reality that their LLMs could be easily used to launch devastating attacks and start hardening them now while in development to avert those risks.

LLMs are the sharpest double-edged sword of any currently emerging technologies, promising to be one of the most lethal cyberweapons any attacker can quickly learn and eventually master. CISOs need to have a solid plan to manage.

  • Studies including BadLlama: cheaply removing safety fine-tuning from Llama 2-Chat 13B and A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing: Generalized Nested Jailbreak Prompts Can Fool Large Language Models Easily illustrate how LLMs are at risk of being weaponized.
  • Researchers from the Indian Institute of Information Technology, Lucknow, and Palisade Research collaborated on the BadLlama study, finding that despite Meta’s intensive efforts to fine-tune Llama 2-Chat, they “fail to address a critical threat vector made possible with the public release of model weights: that attackers will simply fine-tune the model to remove the safety training altogether.”
  • Jerich Beason, Chief Information Security Officer (CISO) at WM Environmental Services, underscores this concern and provides insights into how organizations can protect themselves from weaponized LLMs.

His LinkedIn Learning course, Securing the Use of Generative AI in Your Organization, provides a structured learning experience and recommendations on how to get the most value out of gen AI while minimizing its threats. Beason advises in his course, ‘Neglecting security and gen AI can result in compliance violations, legal disputes, and financial penalties. The impact on brand reputation and customer trust cannot be overlooked.’

LLMs are the new power tool of choice for rouge attackers, cybercrime syndicates, and nation-state attack teams. From jailbreaking and reverse engineering to cyberespionage, attackers are ingenious in modifying LLMs for malicious purposes. Researchers who discovered how generalized nested jailbreak prompts can fool large language models proposed the ReNeLLM framework that leverages LLMs to generate jailbreak prompts, exposing the inadequacy of current defense measures.

The following are a few of the many ways LLMs are being weaponized today:

  • Defining advanced security alignment earlier in the SDLC process.
  • Dynamic monitoring and filtering to keep confidential data out of LLMs.
  • Collaborative standardization in LLM development is table stakes.

Across the growing research base tracking how LLMs can and have been compromised, three core strategies emerge as the most common approaches to countering these threats. They include the following:

1. Defining advanced security alignment earlier in the SDLC process: OpenAI’s pace of rapid releases needs to be balanced with a stronger, all-in strategy of shift-left security in the SDLC. Evidence OpenAI’s security process needs work, including how it will regurgitate sensitive data if someone constantly enters the same text string. All LLMs need more extensive adversarial training and red-teaming exercises.

2. Dynamic monitoring and filtering to keep confidential data out of LLMs: Researchers agree that more monitoring and filtering is needed, especially when employees use LLMs, and the risk of sharing confidential data with the model increases. Researchers emphasize that this is a moving target, with attackers having the upper hand in navigating around defense – they innovate faster than the best-run enterprises can. Vendors addressing this challenge include Cradlepoint Ericom’s Generative AI Isolation, Menlo Security, Nightfall AI, Zscaler, and others. Ericom’s Generative AI Isolation is unique in its reliance on a virtual browser isolated from an organization’s network environment in the Ericom Cloud. Data loss protection, sharing, and access policy controls are applied in the cloud to prevent confidential data, PII, or other sensitive information from being submitted to the LLM and potentially exposed.

3. Collaborative standardization in LLM development is table stakes: Meta’s Purple Llama Initiative reflects a new era in securing LLM development through collaboration with leading providers. The BadLlama study identified how easily safety protocols in LLMs could be circumvented. Researchers pointed out the ease of how quickly LLM guard rails could be compromised, proving that a more unified, industry-wide approach to standardizing safety measures is needed.

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