Attack of the tails: Yes, you really can backdoor federated learning

Hongyi Wang, Kartik Sreenivasan, Shashank Rajput, Harit Vishwakarma, Saurabh Agarwal, Jy Yong Sohn, Kangwook Lee, Dimitris Papailiopoulos

Research output: Contribution to journalConference articlepeer-review


Due to its decentralized nature, Federated Learning (FL) lends itself to adversarial attacks in the form of backdoors during training. The goal of a backdoor is to corrupt the performance of the trained model on specific sub-tasks (e.g., by classifying green cars as frogs). A range of FL backdoor attacks have been introduced in the literature, but also methods to defend against them, and it is currently an open question whether FL systems can be tailored to be robust against backdoors. In this work, we provide evidence to the contrary. We first establish that, in the general case, robustness to backdoors implies model robustness to adversarial examples, a major open problem in itself. Furthermore, detecting the presence of a backdoor in a FL model is unlikely assuming first-order oracles or polynomial time. We couple our theoretical results with a new family of backdoor attacks, which we refer to as edge-case backdoors. An edge-case backdoor forces a model to misclassify on seemingly easy inputs that are however unlikely to be part of the training, or test data, i.e., they live on the tail of the input distribution. We explain how these edge-case backdoors can lead to unsavory failures and may have serious repercussions on fairness. We further exhibit that, with careful tuning at the side of the adversary, one can insert them across a range of machine learning tasks (e.g., image classification, OCR, text prediction, sentiment analysis), and bypass state-of-the-art defense mechanisms.

Original languageEnglish
JournalAdvances in Neural Information Processing Systems
Publication statusPublished - 2020
Event34th Conference on Neural Information Processing Systems, NeurIPS 2020 - Virtual, Online
Duration: 2020 Dec 62020 Dec 12

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
Dimitris Papailiopoulos is supported by an NSF CAREER Award #1844951, two Sony Faculty Innovation Awards, an AFOSR & AFRL Center of Excellence Award FA9550-18-1-0166, and an NSF TRIPODS Award #1740707. Kangwook Lee is supported by NSF/Intel Partnership on Machine Learning for Wireless Networking Program under Grant No. CNS-2003129. The authors also thank Eugene Bagdasaryan for invaluable discussions and feedback.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2020 Neural information processing systems foundation. All rights reserved.

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Computer Networks and Communications
  • Information Systems
  • Signal Processing


Dive into the research topics of 'Attack of the tails: Yes, you really can backdoor federated learning'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this