Understanding AI risks and how to secure using Zero Trust

June 12, 2023  |  Keith Thomas

I. Introduction

AI’s transformative power is reshaping business operations across numerous industries. Through Robotic Process Automation (RPA), AI is liberating human resources from the shackles of repetitive, rule-based tasks and directing their focus towards strategic, complex operations. Furthermore, AI and machine learning algorithms can decipher the huge sets of data at an unprecedented speed and accuracy, giving businesses insights that were once out of reach. For customer relations, AI serves as a personal touchpoint, enhancing engagement through personalized interactions.

As advantageous as AI is to businesses, it also creates very unique security challenges. For example, adversarial attacks that subtly manipulate the input data of an AI model to make it behave abnormally, all while circumventing detection. Equally concerning is the phenomenon of data poisoning where attackers taint an AI model during its training phase by injecting misleading data, thereby corrupting its eventual outcomes.

It is in this landscape that the Zero Trust security model of 'Trust Nothing, Verify Everything', stakes its claim as a potent counter to AI-based threats. Zero Trust moves away from the traditional notion of a secure perimeter. Instead, it assumes that any device or user, regardless of their location within or outside the network, should be considered a threat.

This shift in thinking demands strict access controls, comprehensive visibility, and continuous monitoring across the IT ecosystem. As AI technologies increase operational efficiency and decision-making, they can also become conduits for attacks if not properly secured. Cybercriminals are already trying to exploit AI systems via data poisoning and adversarial attacks making Zero Trust model's role in securing these systems is becomes even more important.

II. Understanding AI threats

Mitigating AI threats risks requires a comprehensive approach to AI security, including careful design and testing of AI models, robust data protection measures, continuous monitoring for suspicious activity, and the use of secure, reliable infrastructure. Businesses need to consider the following risks when implementing AI.

Adversarial attacks: These attacks involve manipulating an AI model's input data to make the model behave in a way that the attacker desires, without triggering an alarm. For example, an attacker could manipulate a facial recognition system to misidentify an individual, allowing unauthorized access.

Data poisoning: This type of attack involves introducing false or misleading data into an AI model during its training phase, with the aim of corrupting the model's outcomes. Since AI systems depend heavily on their training data, poisoned data can significantly impact their performance and reliability.

Model theft and inversion attacks: Attackers might attempt to steal proprietary AI models or recreate them based on their outputs, a risk that’s particularly high for models provided as a service. Additionally, attackers can try to infer sensitive information from the outputs of an AI model, like learning about the individuals in a training dataset.

AI-enhanced cyberattacks: AI can be used by malicious actors to automate and enhance their cyberattacks. This includes using AI to perform more sophisticated phishing attacks, automate the discovery of vulnerabilities, or conduct faster, more effective brute-force attacks.

Lack of transparency (black box problem): It's often hard to understand how complex AI models make decisions. This lack of transparency can create a security risk as it might allow biased or malicious behavior to go undetected.

Dependence on AI systems: As businesses increasingly rely on AI systems, any disruption to these systems can have serious consequences. This could occur due to technical issues, attacks on the AI system itself, or attacks on the underlying infrastructure.

III. The Zero Trust model for AI

Zero Trust offers an effective strategy to neutralize AI-based threats. At its core, Zero Trust is a simple concept: Trust Nothing, Verify Everything. It rebuffs the traditional notion of a secure perimeter and assumes that any device or user, whether inside or outside the network, could be a potential threat. Consequently, it mandates strict access controls, comprehensive visibility, and continual monitoring across the IT environment. Zero Trust is an effective strategy for dealing with AI threats for the following reasons:

  • Zero Trust architecture: Design granular access controls based on least privilege principles. Each AI model, data source, and user is considered individually, with stringent permissions that limit access only to what is necessary. This approach significantly reduces the threat surface that an attacker can exploit.
  • Zero Trust visibility: Emphasizes deep visibility across all digital assets, including AI algorithms and data sets. This transparency enables organizations to monitor and detect abnormal activities swiftly, aiding in promptly mitigating AI-specific threats such as model drift or data manipulation.
  • Zero Trust persistent security monitoring and assessment: In the rapidly evolving AI landscape, a static security stance is inadequate. Zero Trust promotes continuous evaluation and real-time adaptation of security controls, helping organizations stay a step ahead of AI threats.

IV. Applying Zero Trust to AI

Zero Trust principles can be applied to protect a business's sensitive data from being inadvertently sent to AI services like ChatGPT or any other external system. Here are some capabilities within Zero Trust that can help mitigate risks:

Identity and Access Management (IAM): IAM requires the implementation of robust authentication mechanisms, such as multi-factor authentication, alongside adaptive authentication techniques for user behavior and risk level assessment. It is vital to deploy granular access controls that follow the principle of least privilege to ensure users have only the necessary access privileges to perform their tasks.

Network segmentation: This involves dividing your network into smaller, isolated zones based on trust levels and data sensitivity, and deploying stringent network access controls and firewalls to restrict inter-segment communication. It also requires using secure connections, like VPNs, for remote access to sensitive data or systems.

Data encryption: It is crucial to encrypt sensitive data both at rest and in transit using robust encryption algorithms and secure key management practices. Applying end-to-end encryption for communication channels is also necessary to safeguard data exchanged with external systems.

Data Loss Prevention (DLP): This involves deploying DLP solutions to monitor and prevent potential data leaks, employing content inspection and contextual analysis to identify and block unauthorized data transfers, and defining DLP policies to detect and prevent the transmission of sensitive information to external systems, including AI models.

User and Entity Behavior Analytics (UEBA): The implementation of UEBA solutions helps monitor user behavior and identify anomalous activities. Analyzing patterns and deviations from normal behavior can detect potential data exfiltration attempts. Real-time alerts or triggers should also be set up to notify security teams of any suspicious activities.

Continuous monitoring and auditing: Deploying robust monitoring and logging mechanisms is essential to track and audit data access and usage. Utilizing Security Information and Event Management (SIEM) systems can help aggregate and correlate security events. Regular reviews of logs and proactive analysis are necessary to identify unauthorized data transfers or potential security breaches.

Incident response and remediation: Having a dedicated incident response plan for data leaks or unauthorized data transfers is crucial. Clear roles and responsibilities for the incident response team members should be defined, and regular drills and exercises conducted to test the plan's effectiveness.

Security analytics and threat intelligence: Leveraging security analytics and threat intelligence platforms is key to identifying and mitigating potential risks. Staying updated on emerging threats and vulnerabilities related to AI systems and adjusting security measures accordingly is also essential.

Zero Trust principles provide a strong foundation for securing sensitive data. However, it's also important to continuously assess and adapt your security measures to address evolving threats and industry best practices as AI becomes more integrated into the business.

V. Case studies

A large financial institution leverages AI to augment customer support and streamline business processes. However, concerns have arisen regarding the possible exposure of sensitive customer or proprietary financial data, primarily due to insider threats or misuse. To address this, the institution commits to implementing a Zero Trust Architecture, integrating various security measures to ensure data privacy and confidentiality within its operations.

This Zero Trust Architecture encompasses several strategies. The first is an Identity and Access Management (IAM) system that enforces access controls and authentication mechanisms. The plan also prioritizes data anonymization and strong encryption measures for all interactions with AI. Data Loss Prevention (DLP) solutions and User and Entity Behavior Analytics (UEBA) tools are deployed to monitor conversations, detect potential data leaks, and spot abnormal behavior. Further, Role-Based Access Controls (RBAC) confine users to accessing only data relevant to their roles, and a regimen of continuous monitoring and auditing of activities is implemented.

Additionally, user awareness and training are emphasized, with employees receiving education about data privacy, the risks of insider threats and misuse, and guidelines for handling sensitive data. With the institution's Zero Trust Architecture continuously verifying and authenticating trust throughout interactions with AI, the risk of breaches leading to loss of data privacy and confidentiality is significantly mitigated, safeguarding sensitive data and maintaining the integrity of the institution's business operations.

VI. The future of AI and Zero Trust

The evolution of AI threats is driven by the ever-increasing complexity and pervasiveness of AI systems and the sophistication of cybercriminals who are continually finding new ways to exploit them. Here are some ongoing evolutions in AI threats and how the Zero Trust model can adapt to counter these challenges:

Advanced adversarial attacks: As AI models become more complex, so do the adversarial attacks against them. We are moving beyond simple data manipulation towards highly sophisticated techniques designed to trick AI systems in ways that are hard to detect and defend against. To counter this, Zero Trust architectures must implement more advanced detection and prevention systems, incorporating AI themselves to recognize and respond to adversarial inputs in real-time.

AI-powered cyberattacks: As cybercriminals begin to use AI to automate and enhance their attacks, businesses face threats that are faster, more frequent, and more sophisticated. In response, Zero Trust models should incorporate AI-driven threat detection and response tools, enabling them to identify and react to AI-powered attacks with greater speed and accuracy.

Exploitation of AI's '`black box' problem: The inherent complexity of some AI systems makes it hard to understand how they make decisions. This lack of transparency can be exploited by attackers. Zero Trust can adapt by requiring more transparency in AI systems and implementing monitoring tools that can detect anomalies in AI behavior, even when the underlying decision-making process is opaque.

Data privacy risks: As AI systems require vast amounts of data, there are increasing risks related to data privacy and protection. Zero Trust addresses this by ensuring that all data is encrypted, access is strictly controlled, and any unusual data access patterns are immediately detected and investigated.

AI in IoT devices: With AI being embedded in IoT devices, the attack surface is expanding. Zero Trust can help by extending the "never trust, always verify" principle to every IoT device in the network, regardless of its nature or location.

The Zero Trust model’s adaptability and robustness make it particularly suitable for countering the evolving threats in the AI landscape. By continuously updating its strategies and tools based on the latest threat intelligence, Zero Trust can keep pace with the rapidly evolving field of AI threats.

VII. Conclusion

As AI continues to evolve, so too will the threats that target these technologies. The Zero Trust model presents an effective approach to neutralizing these threats by assuming no implicit trust and verifying everything across your IT environment. It applies granular access controls, provides comprehensive visibility, and promotes continuous security monitoring, making it an essential tool in the fight against AI-based threats.

As IT professionals, we must be proactive and innovative in securing our organizations. AI is reshaping our operations and enabling us to streamline our work, make better decisions, and deliver better customer experiences. However, these benefits come with unique security challenges that demand a comprehensive and forward-thinking approach to cybersecurity.

With this in mind, it is time to take the next step. Assess your organization’s readiness to adopt a Zero Trust architecture to mitigate potential AI threats. Start by conducting a Zero Trust readiness assessment with AT&T Cybersecurity to evaluate your current security environment and identify any gaps. By understanding where your vulnerabilities lie, you can begin crafting a strategic plan towards implementing a robust Zero Trust framework, ultimately safeguarding your AI initiatives, and ensuring the integrity of your systems and data.

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