To anyone working in technology (or, really, anyone on the Internet), the term “AI” is everywhere. Artificial intelligence — technically, machine learning — is finding application in virtually every industry on the planet, from medicine and finance to entertainment and law enforcement. As the Internet of Things (IoT) continues to expand, and the potential for blockchain becomes more widely realized, ML growth will occur through these areas as well.

While current technical constraints limit these models from reaching “general intelligence” capability, organizations continue to push the bounds of ML’s domain-specific applications, such as image recognition and natural language processing. Modern computing power (GPUs in particular) has contributed greatly to these recent developments — which is why it’s also worth noting that quantum computing will exponentialize this progress over the next several years.

Alongside enormous growth in this space, however, has been increased criticism; from conflating AI with machine learning to relying on those very buzzwords to attract large investments, many “innovators” in this space have drawn criticism from technologists as to the legitimacy of their contributions. Thankfully, there’s plenty of room — and, by extension, overlooked profit — for innovation with ML’s security and privacy challenges.


Machine learning models, much like any piece of software, are prone to theft and subsequent reverse-engineering. In late 2016, researchers at Cornell Tech, the Swiss Institute EPFL, and the University of North Carolina reverse-engineered a sophisticated Amazon AI by analyzing its responses to only a few thousand queries; their clone replicated the original model’s output with nearly perfect accuracy. The process is not difficult to execute, and once completed, hackers will have effectively “copied” the entire machine learning algorithm — which its creators presumably spent generously to develop.

The risk this poses will only continue to grow. In addition to the potentially massive financial costs of intellectual property theft, this vulnerability also poses threats to national security — especially as governments pour billions of dollars into autonomous weapon research.

While some researchers have suggested that increased model complexity is the best solution, there hasn’t been nearly enough open work done in this space; it’s a critical (albeit underpublicized) opportunity for innovation — all in defense of the multi-billion-dollar AI sector.

Adversarial “Injection”

Machine learning also faces the risk of adversarial “injection” — sending malicious data that disrupts a neural network’s functionality. Last year, for instance, researchers from four top universities confused image recognition systems by adding small stickers onto a photo, through what they termed Robust Physical Perturbation (RP2) attacks; the networks in question then misclassified the image. Another team at NYU showed a similar attack against a facial recognition system, which would allow a suspect individual to easily escape detection.

Not only is this attack a threat to the network itself (i.e. consider this against a self-driving car), but it’s also a threat to companies who outsource their AI development and risk contractors putting their own “backdoors” into the system. Jaime Blasco, Chief Scientist at security company AlienVault, points out that this risk will only increase as the world depends more and more on machine learning. What would happen, for instance, if these flaws persisted in military systems? Law enforcement cameras? Surgical robots?

Training Data Privacy

Protecting the training data put into machine learning models is yet another area that needs innovation. Currently, hackers can reverse-engineer user data out of machine learning models with relative ease. Since the bulk of a model’s training data is often personally identifiable information —e.g. with medicine and finance — this means anyone from an organized crime group to a business competitor can reap economic reward from such attacks.

As machine learning models move to the cloud (i.e. self-driving cars), this becomes even more complicated; at the same that users need to privately and securely send their data to the central network, the network needs to make sure it can trust the user’s data (so tokenizing the data via hashing, for instance, isn’t necessarily an option). We can once again abstract this challenge with everything from mobile phones to weapons systems.

Further, as organizations seek personal data for ML research, their clients might want to contribute to the work (e.g. improving cancer detection) without compromising their privacy (e.g. providing an excess of PII that just sits in a database). These two interests currently seem at odds — but they also aren’t receiving much focus, so we shouldn’t see this opposition as inherent. Smart redesign could easily mitigate these problems.


In short: it’s time some innovators in the AI space focused on its security and privacy issues. With the world increasingly dependent on these algorithms, there’s simply too much at stake — including a lot of money for those who address these challenges.