Monthly Archives: September 2019

AI could use killer drone swarms to attack people while taking out networks

In 1987 I discovered a whole class of security attacks that could knock out networks, which I called correlated traffic attacks, creating particular patterns of data packet arrivals from particular sources at particular times or intervals. We simulated two examples to successfully verify the problem. One example was protocol resonance. I demonstrated that it was possible to push a system into a gross overload state with a single call, by spacing the packets precise intervals apart. Their arrival caused a strong resonance in the bandwidth allocation algorithms and the result was that network capacity was instantaneously reduced by around 70%. Another example was information waves, whereby a single piece of information appearing at a particular point could, by its interaction with particular apps on mobile devices (the assumption was financially relevant data that would trigger AI on the devices to start requesting voluminous data, triggering a highly correlated wave of responses, using up bandwidth and throwing the network into overload, very likely crashing due to initiation of rarely used software. When calls couldn’t get through, the devices would wait until the network recovered, then they would all simultaneously detect recovery and simultaneously try again, killing the net again, and again, until people were asked to turn  their devices off and on again, thereby bringing randomness back into the system. Both of these examples could knock out certain kinds of networks, but they are just two of an infinite set of possibilities in the correlated traffic attack class.

Adversarial AI pits one AI against another, trying things at random or making small modifications until a particular situation is achieved, such as the second AI accepting an image is acceptable. It is possible, though I don’t believe it has been achieved yet, to use the technique to simulate a wide range of correlated traffic situations, seeing which ones achieve network resonance or overloads, which trigger particular desired responses from network management or control systems, via interactions with the network and its protocols, commonly resident apps on mobile devices or computer operating systems.

Activists and researchers are already well aware that adversarial AI can be used to find vulnerabilities in face recognition systems and thereby prevent recognition, or to deceive autonomous car AI into seeing fantasy objects or not seeing real ones. As Noel Sharkey, the robotics expert, has been tweeting today, it will be possible to use adversarial AI to corrupt recognition systems used by killer drones, potentially to cause them to attack their controllers or innocents instead of their intended targets. I have to agree with him. But linking that corruption to the whole extended field of correlated traffic attacks extends the range of mechanisms that can be used greatly. It will be possible to exploit highly obscured interactions between network physical architecture, protocols and operating systems, network management, app interactions, and the entire sensor/IoT ecosystem, as well as software and AI systems using it. It is impossible to check all possible interactions, so no absolute defence is possible, but adversarial AI with enough compute power could randomly explore across these multiple dimensions, stumble across regions of vulnerability and drill down until grand vulnerabilities are found.

This could further be linked to apps used as highly invisible Trojans, offering high attractiveness to users with no apparent side effects, quietly gathering data to help identify potential targets, and simply waiting for a particular situation or command before signalling to the attacking system.

A future activist or terrorist group or rogue state could use such tools to make a multidimensional attack. It could initiate an attack, using its own apps to identify and locate targets, control large swarms of killer drones or robots to attack them, simultaneously executing a cyberattack that knocks out selected parts of the network, crashing or killing computers and infrastructure. The vast bulk of this could be developed, tested and refined offline, using simulation and adversarial AI approaches to discover vulnerabilities and optimise exploits.

There is already debate about killer drones, mainly whether we should permit them and in what circumstances, but activists and rogue states won’t care about rules. Millions of engineers are technically able to build such things and some are not on your side. It is reasonable to expect that freely available AI tools will be used in such ways, using their intelligence to design, refine, initiate and control attacks using killer drones, robots and self-driving cars to harm us, while corrupting systems and infrastructure that protect us.

Worrying, especially since the capability is arriving just as everyone is starting to consider civil war.