February 7, 2024

Naga Vydyanathan

Is my Data Safe? Five Tips to Shield your Data in the World of Generative AI

Discover key strategies to safeguard your data in the age of Generative AI. Learn how to secure your digital footprint with our top five tips, and stay ahead of potential privacy threats in the evolving AI landscape. Protect your sensitive information from AI vulnerabilities and ensure your data remains confidential with our expert guidance.

Table of contents


In today's data-driven world, the rise of Generative AI has brought us wonders like talking chatbots, predictive text, and even AI-generated art. But it is not all sunshine and rainbows in the land of AI. As we entrust our data to these digital sorcerers, we need to make sure they're not casting any dubious spells on our precious information. Imagine this: you're trusting your data to a sophisticated AI system, and right before a super-secret chat, it spills your secrets to the world. That's just one funny example of the security and privacy challenges lurking in the AI landscape.

In March this year, chatGPT had a little hiccup and went offline for a few hours to fix a bug in an open-source library it uses. This bug caused some users' chat history, initial messages, and even payment-related info to leak for a certain period. A recent report from Stanford and Georgetown University is a clear reminder that the security threats to AI systems are real and significant.

So, how do we enjoy the benefits of AI while keeping our digital fortresses secure and our data intact? The key is to truly understand the privacy and security challenges that come with Large Language Models (LLMs), get to the bottom of what causes them, and come up with practical solutions to tackle them. This article is your go-to guide for exactly that!

Security Loopholes in LLMs - where are the data compromise points?

Large Language Models (LLMs) are foundational components of generative AI systems. These models, built upon deep learning principles, undergo extensive training on vast datasets, enabling them to comprehend, summarize, predict, and produce new content. 

In an LLM-based AI system, four primary elements come into play: a prompt interface for user input, a pre-trained LLM model responsible for the cognitive process, a training database containing extensive data used for initial learning, and an inference database that stores generated responses (Figure 1). The LLM model employs advanced techniques such as transformer architectures and deep neural networks to comprehend user prompts and generate coherent text. The training database aids the model in its initial training phase, while the inference database stores generated responses, including prior interactions and system logs, to enhance efficiency.

Figure 1: High Level Architecture of a Large Language Model AI System

Each component within the LLM AI system we have explored represents a potential vulnerability that could compromise the security of your data and the integrity of the AI system as a whole. Let us delve into these potential risks.

Prompt Poisoning

Prompt poisoning, also known as prompt injection, happens when bad actors intentionally manipulate prompts given to LLMs like GPT-3. They do this to make the model ignore its previous instructions and produce harmful, biased, or inappropriate responses or even leak sensitive info. This manipulation involves using misleading information, offensive language, or harmful instructions in the prompts. 

In a recent case with Microsoft's Bing Chat, the attacker exposed the model's hidden initial instructions. According to the Open World Application Security Project (OWASP), prompt injection vulnerabilities often involve tricking the model by using specific language patterns or tokens that it doesn't recognize as restricted. This allows users to bypass filters and do things they shouldn't.

Model Evasion, Extraction and Denial of Service

The large language model in an AI system can be subjected to three types of attacks - model evasion, model extraction, and denial of service. Model evasion involves tricking AI models into producing incorrect results, often through carefully crafted input data. Attackers may aim to bypass security, deceive recommendation systems, or cause errors. Model extraction is about reverse-engineering AI models to steal their architecture and parameters, often for reasons like intellectual property theft or cost savings. Model DoS is a cyberattack that disrupts AI models by overwhelming them with requests or exploiting vulnerabilities in their infrastructure, leading to service interruptions. Attackers have various motives, from harming competitors to extortion.

Data Leaks and Poisoning

Data leaks occur when sensitive information is unintentionally exposed during the use of Large Language Models (LLMs). This can happen due to inadequate filtering, overfitting during LLM training, or misinterpretations by the model. Attackers may deliberately try to extract sensitive data through prompts, while users can accidentally reveal confidential information. Samsung’s accidental leak of sensitive data to chatGPT, ChatGPT’s outage in March this year where users’ chat history and payment information was leaked, and the leakage of windows 10 Pro product keys on chatGPT in July this year, are classic examples of data leaking in LLM AI systems.

Data poisoning is a malicious act where attackers manipulate the training data of LLMs to introduce biased or harmful information. This can lead the LLM to produce undesirable outputs, compromising its effectiveness and ethical behavior. For example, in email spam filters, data poisoning might make the filter misclassify legitimate emails as spam. This manipulation affects the filter's performance, causing it to mistakenly mark important messages as spam.

Apart from the above, the external plug-ins and the deployment mechanism of LLM AI systems are also potential security loopholes.

Proprietary Models, Third Party Hosting and Supply Chain Vulnerabilities

Hosting LLMs on third-party cloud vendors and using proprietary LLMs that are essentially black boxes carry potential risks. For instance, when organizations rely on third-party cloud services to host their LLMs, they may have limited control and visibility over the underlying infrastructure and data security protocols. Similarly, proprietary LLMs provided as black boxes can make it challenging for organizations to assess or customize security measures according to their specific needs, potentially leaving them at risk to undisclosed vulnerabilities or data mishandling.

Further, the life cycle of Large Language Model (LLM) applications is complex and involves various dependencies like third-party datasets, pretrained models, and plugins. Vulnerabilities at any of these stages can threaten the model's security. For example, issues in pretrained models or poisoned data from third parties can harm the LLM's integrity.

Finally, insecure design of LLM plugins can introduce security vulnerabilities, potentially allowing unauthorized access or code execution. Recent incidents, like ChatGPT's data leak and the Log4j vulnerability affecting companies like Amazon and Tesla, highlight the real-world consequences of these vulnerabilities.

The figure below summarizes the potential security loopholes and data compromise points in LLM AI systems.

Figure 2: Security Risks in Large Language Model AI Systems

Armour Up: Five Tips to Keep Your Data as Safe as Grandma's Cookie Recipe!

While we've got some concerns about the security and privacy of our data when dealing with Large Language Models (LLMs), there's a silver lining – we can tackle these issues one by one. Let's take a good look at each chink in the armor of an LLM AI system and figure out how to shield it from potential threats.

Take the reins

LLMs come in two flavors: proprietary, like GPT by OpenAI, and open source, like Llama 2 by Meta. Proprietary LLMs hosted on third-party platforms can pose security risks. To enhance security, organizations can consider open-source LLMs and self-hosting. These options provide more control, transparency, flexibility and the comfort of having your data within your premises. Users can even inspect open-source code to detect and fix vulnerabilities.

However, as always, freedom comes with responsibility. Users or hosting organizations must ensure that proper security measures are in place, including correct configuration, regular updates and patches to address known vulnerabilities, firewalls, access/privilege control and encryption. In addition, security measures to address vulnerabilities arising from third-party dependencies and improper user behavior must be chalked out.

Disguise and Fortify

Disguising and fortifying your data provides a formidable defense against security and privacy vulnerabilities within Large Language Models (LLMs). Data anonymization, the process of concealing sensitive information, safeguards data privacy during both model training and usage. Common anonymization techniques, including generalization, data masking, and data aggregation, alter the data to reduce its identifiability while preserving its usefulness for analysis and machine learning. 

In contrast, data augmentation focuses on diversifying your training data without compromising privacy. It expands the dataset by introducing variations such as synonyms or similar phrases. This approach helps AI models generalize their learning instead of memorizing specific data points, reducing the risk of exposing sensitive information.

Differential privacy, a vital privacy measure in data analysis and machine learning, introduces controlled noise to training data, preserving the privacy of individual data points while delivering accurate aggregate results. When applied during training, this technique conceals the specific data points used, making it challenging for attackers to reverse-engineer the training data or extract sensitive information. Homomorphic encryption, on the other hand, maintains data encryption during processing, effectively safeguarding the model and data against extraction, rendering it indecipherable to potential attackers. 

In tandem, access control and privilege control efficiently thwart prompt injection attacks. Access control validates users and specifies their permissions, including types of prompts, while role-based access control assigns precise permissions to roles. Privilege control harnesses API tokens to manage various LLM functions, adhering to the principle of least privilege to bolster security.

Validate, Sanitize and Isolate

User input validation is like the gatekeeper for LLMs, making sure only well-behaved inputs get through. This means checking the input format, weeding out harmful patterns, and ensuring everything's in line with the expected norms. Prompt delimiters that separate prompts from instructions, prompt validation models that detect and classify prompt injections, contextual validation to ensure prompts adhere to expected contexts and logical sequences and checking prompts against whitelists and blacklists are some techniques that sanitize the input prompts before being fed into the model. 

To counter prompt injection attacks, anomaly detection systems can spot unusual output patterns, and context-aware filtering and output encoding can prevent manipulation.

Sandboxing is a security technique that isolates plugins or extensions within a controlled and restricted environment, known as a 'sandbox.' This isolation ensures that plugins can't access critical system resources or data, reducing the potential harm caused by insecure or malicious plugins. If a plugin attempts unauthorized actions or poses security risks, the sandbox confines their impact to their restricted space, preventing them from compromising the overall security and stability of the LLM or the underlying system.

“Learn” to Outsmart!

LLMs can be trained to thwart adversarial attacks with various learning techniques. Ensemble learning combines multiple models to enhance security, making it harder for attackers to craft adversarial examples. Even if one model is vulnerable, the collective decision of the ensemble offers greater resistance to adversarial attacks, improving overall security. Transfer learning allows models to use pre-trained knowledge for greater resilience against evasion attempts, while Deep reinforcement learning helps models adapt to evolving attack strategies. 

Federated learning, unlike the traditional centralized approach, allows LLMs to train on decentralized devices, reducing the risk of data exposure and benefiting enterprises. Adversarial training strengthens models by exposing them to intentionally altered data, making them more resistant to manipulation. These methods enable LLMs to outsmart adversarial threats and protect their data and models effectively.

Stay Watchful and Alert

Maintaining vigilance and alertness is key to safeguarding your Large Language Models (LLMs). The human-in-the-loop (HITL) approach serves as a vital component of this security strategy. With human reviewers actively monitoring user interactions, the system can promptly identify and respond to any malicious or inappropriate prompts, enforcing guidelines and security policies in real-time. This adaptability allows HITL to stay ahead of evolving attack patterns while ensuring interaction quality and offering valuable feedback for ongoing data improvements. However, it is essential to complement HITL with other measures such as access controls and automated detection for comprehensive defense. 

Additionally, utilizing 'Red Teams' to simulate attacks can proactively uncover system weaknesses. Dynamic resource allocation helps mitigate model Denial of Service (DoS) attacks by efficiently managing and prioritizing resources, while rate limiting, throttling and behavioral analysis provide effective strategies for countering DoS attacks.

In summary, ongoing research is actively developing techniques to address security and privacy challenges in Large Language Models, with innovative solutions emerging regularly. These techniques aim to fortify LLMs against potential threats and vulnerabilities.

Figure 3: Mechanisms to Mitigate Security Risks in LLM AI Systems

Securing the Future

In the dynamic world of Generative AI, ensuring the security and privacy of your data is an ongoing journey. Through the five tips outlined in this article, organisations can fortify their generative AI systems and harness their power with confidence. As technology advances and threats evolve, the strategies discussed in this article serve as essential tools to fortify your data against vulnerabilities and protect sensitive information and new strategies will emerge. In this ever-evolving landscape, the commitment to innovation and vigilance in safeguarding your data will continue to drive the future of secure and privacy-respecting AI systems

Naga Vydyanathan
Naga Vydyanathan