Outsmarting AI with Model Evasion

Marin Ivezic
9 min readAug 17, 2023


In the cybersecurity arena, artificial intelligence classifiers like neural networks and support vector machines have become indispensable for real-time anomaly detection and incident response. However, these algorithms harbor vulnerabilities that are susceptible to sophisticated evasion tactics, including adversarial perturbations and feature-space manipulations. Such methods exploit the mathematical foundations of the models, confounding their decision-making capabilities. These vulnerabilities are not just theoretical concerns but pressing practical issues, especially when deploying machine learning in real-world cybersecurity contexts that require resilience against dynamically evolving threats. Addressing this multidimensional challenge is part of the broader emerging field of adversarial machine learning, which seeks to develop robust algorithms and integrated security measures at various stages of the machine learning pipeline. Understanding and countering Model Evasion thus serves as both a challenge and an opportunity, urging enhanced collaboration between machine learning practitioners and security experts to fortify next-generation AI-driven security measures.

Understanding Model Evasion

Definition of Model Evasion

Model Evasion in the context of machine learning for cybersecurity refers to the tactical manipulation of input data, algorithmic processes, or outputs to mislead or subvert the intended operations of a machine learning model. In mathematical terms, evasion can be considered an optimization problem, where the objective is to minimize or maximize a certain loss function without altering the essential characteristics of the input data. This could involve modifying the input data x such that f(x) does not equal the true label y, where f is the classifier and x is the input vector.

What it means for an attacker to evade a machine learning model

When an attacker successfully evades a machine learning model, it essentially means they have manipulated the model’s input or underlying decision logic to produce an inaccurate or misleading output. From the attacker’s standpoint, the goal is often to violate the integrity, confidentiality, or availability of a system by avoiding detection, which could be quantified as reducing the True Positive Rate (TPR) or increasing the False Negative Rate (FNR) of the classifier.

Types of Evasion Attacks

Simple Evasion: Simple evasion tactics generally rely on manipulating observable features in input data to circumvent detection by weak or poorly-trained machine learning models. For example, in malware detection, altering the hash of a malicious file could effectively prevent its identification by simple hash-based classifiers. These types of evasion are often effective against models with shallow architectures or those that haven’t been trained on diverse datasets.

Adversarial Attacks: These attacks represent a more sophisticated class of evasion tactics that exploit the mathematical properties of machine learning models. Adversarial examples can be generated through various optimization techniques aimed at altering the model’s output classification. Among the most common methods are:

Fast Gradient Sign Method (FGSM): This technique uses the gradients of the loss function with respect to the input data to create a perturbed version of the input that leads to misclassification.

Jacobian-based Saliency Map Attack (JSMA): Unlike FGSM, which is focused on rapidly generating adversarial examples, JSMA takes a more targeted approach by iteratively perturbing features that are most influential for a given classification.

Feature Space Manipulations: These attacks specifically target the dimensions or features that are most important for model decision-making. The attacker first identifies crucial features through techniques like feature importance ranking or sensitivity analysis. Once the pivotal features are identified, they can be subtly altered to affect classification. For example, tweaking certain header fields in network packets could make malicious traffic appear benign to an intrusion detection system.

Decision Boundary Attacks: These are exploratory attacks where the attacker aims to understand the decision boundaries that a machine learning classifier employs. This could involve using techniques like:

Boundary Attack: This requires starting with an instance that is already misclassified and iteratively bringing it closer to the decision boundary without changing its classification.

Query-based Attacks: These involve sending queries to the machine learning model to gather information about its decision boundaries. The attacker then uses this data to craft inputs that are more likely to be misclassified.

By diving deep into these different types of evasion attacks, each with its unique tactics and methodologies, one can gain a holistic understanding of the vulnerabilities inherent in machine learning models used in cybersecurity applications.

Techniques for Evading AI Models

Adversarial Examples

Adversarial examples are not merely nuisances; they challenge the very mathematical underpinnings of machine learning classifiers. These are specially crafted inputs that undergo minuscule, algorithmically calculated perturbations. While trivial to a human observer, these perturbations are sufficient to mislead machine learning models. Consider a convolutional neural network trained for image classification; an adversarial example could perturb pixel values such that a benign object is classified as a threatening one. Techniques like the Fast Gradient Sign Method (FGSM) or Carlini & Wagner (C&W) attacks can be utilized to generate these adversarial instances by iteratively adjusting input features based on the gradient of the loss function relative to the input data.

Data Poisoning

Data poisoning attacks represent a more insidious form of manipulation. Instead of targeting the model during inference, the attacker tampers with the training data to embed vulnerabilities into the model itself. This is often done in a surreptitious manner so that the poisoned data doesn’t raise flags during the training process but manifests its effects when the model is deployed. For example, in a supervised learning scenario for network intrusion detection, an attacker might introduce anomalous traffic patterns as normal behavior in the training dataset. This dilutes the model’s understanding of what constitutes an ‘attack,’ reducing its efficacy in a live environment.

Model Manipulation

Model manipulation is an overt assault on the machine learning model’s architectural integrity. Here, the attacker gains unauthorized access to the internal parameters of the model, such as the weights and biases in a neural network, to recalibrate its decision boundaries. By directly manipulating these parameters, the attacker can induce arbitrary and often malicious behavior. For instance, altering the weights in the final softmax layer of a neural network could swap the labels between benign and malicious classes, thereby turning the model into a tool for subterfuge rather than security.

Social Engineering Tactics

Despite the growing reliance on algorithmic defenses, the human element remains a potential point of vulnerability. Social engineering attacks aim to exploit this human factor, using psychological manipulation to induce errors in human-AI interaction. For instance, an attacker might craft a phishing email so sophisticated that it persuades a cybersecurity analyst to flag it as a false positive. Once that ‘safe’ classification is integrated into the model’s training data, the model’s capability to correctly identify similar phishing attempts could be compromised. Alternatively, an insider could deliberately mislabel sensitive data, affecting not just a single decision but potentially undermining the model’s long-term reliability.

By dissecting these techniques, ranging from the mathematical sophistication of adversarial examples to the psychological subtleties of social engineering, we gain a multi-faceted understanding of the challenges facing AI-driven cybersecurity measures. This granular understanding is crucial for developing more resilient machine learning models and for engineering countermeasures that can effectively mitigate the risks posed by these evasion techniques.


Data Integrity

At the foundation of any machine learning model is its training data, making data integrity paramount. Ensuring secure, unbiased, and representative training data mitigates the risk of data poisoning and the resultant model vulnerabilities. This could involve cryptographic data integrity checks, statistical analysis for anomaly detection, and employing differential privacy to sanitize data. Techniques such as data provenance tracking the origins, transformations, and usages of data elements can add another layer of security, making it harder for attackers to introduce malicious data into the training set without detection.

Given the dynamic nature of threats, it is imperative that machine learning models in cybersecurity undergo frequent updates and real-time monitoring. Adaptive learning algorithms that can incrementally update the model in the face of new data can be invaluable. Monitoring should include not only performance metrics but also anomaly detection systems that can flag unusual model behavior indicative of an attack. Automated version control systems can roll back models to a previous state in case of a detected manipulation, while real-time alerting mechanisms can notify human overseers of potential issues.

Robust Machine Learning Algorithms

Machine learning models can be inherently susceptible to adversarial perturbations; therefore, the development of robust algorithms designed to resist evasion is critical. Algorithms like Robust Deep Learning (RDL) and Support Vector Machines with robust kernels focus on creating decision boundaries that are less sensitive to adversarial manipulations. Other methods, like adversarial training, where the model is intentionally exposed to adversarial examples during training, can help in hardening the model against similar attacks. Ensemble techniques, combining the predictions of multiple models, can also be effective in diluting the impact of attacks aimed at a single model’s weaknesses.

Zero Trust Architecture for Model Deployment

Deploying machine learning models within a Zero Trust Architecture (ZTA) can enhance security by adhering to a “never trust, always verify” paradigm. In such an architecture, even if an attacker gains access to a part of the network, the inherent distrust built into the system will restrict their access to the machine learning model parameters or training data. This makes direct model manipulation or data poisoning far more challenging.

Blockchain for Auditing and Provenance

Blockchain technology can be employed to secure the training data and the machine learning model’s parameters, offering an immutable record of changes and updates. Every update or alteration would be stored in a new block, providing a transparent and tamper-proof log. This could be crucial for compliance, auditing, and also for identifying and rolling back any unauthorized changes to the model or training data.

Recent Research

The academic and industrial research communities are vigorously investigating model evasion techniques and countermeasures in AI-driven cybersecurity. Recent studies, Resistant to Adversarial Attacks [1], have set a foundation for understanding the mathematical formulations that could lead to robust models. Meanwhile, in [2], the author took a significant step in providing formal guarantees against specific kinds of evasion attacks. On the adversarial frontier, ‘Transferable Adversarial Attacks,’ as explored in [3], showcase the feasibility of successful evasion in black-box settings. Defensive techniques such as ‘Adversarial Logit Pairing’ and ‘Defensive Distillation’ have been studied for their real-world applicability, as shown in [4] and [5]. An emerging interdisciplinary approach combines machine learning, cryptography, and game theory to design adaptive algorithms, a notion reflected in [6]. This collective body of research illustrates the ongoing arms race in AI cybersecurity, spotlighting both the challenges and innovative solutions in the battle against model evasion.

Future Prospects

The future landscape of AI in cybersecurity is poised to be shaped by emerging technologies and a host of legal and ethical considerations. On the technological front, Explainable AI (XAI) promises to make the decision-making processes of complex models more transparent, thereby enabling easier audits and potentially exposing vulnerabilities before they can be exploited. Federated Learning offers another avenue, decentralizing the training process across multiple devices to maintain data privacy and reduce the risk of centralized data poisoning. Simultaneously, the evolving legal landscape is pushing for greater accountability and compliance in the use of AI for cybersecurity. Regulations may soon require stringent audits of machine learning models, ensuring that they meet ethical standards and are free from biases that could be exploited for evasion. As both technology and law advance, they will mutually shape the challenges and solutions in combating AI model evasion, adding layers of complexity and opportunity for more robust countermeasures.


In the ever-evolving landscape of AI and cybersecurity, the need to address model evasion tactics stands out as a critical challenge, essential for maintaining the integrity and reliability of AI systems. From identifying rudimentary input manipulations to combating advanced adversarial attacks, the multi-dimensional strategies explored in this blog reveal that defending against evasion is not merely a technical obstacle but a complex, evolving discipline. Given the significant impact of evasion on AI models, it’s imperative for researchers, practitioners, and policymakers alike to devote increased attention to this issue, elevating it not only as an area ripe for academic exploration but also as a practical and regulatory priority requiring immediate and sustained action.


  1. Mądry, A., Makelov, A., Schmidt, L., Tsipras, D., & Vladu, A. (2017). Towards deep learning models resistant to adversarial attacks. stat, 1050, 9.
  2. Cohen, J., Rosenfeld, E., & Kolter, Z. (2019, May). Certified adversarial robustness via randomized smoothing. In international conference on machine learning (pp. 1310–1320). PMLR.
  3. Wei, Z., Chen, J., Goldblum, M., Wu, Z., Goldstein, T., & Jiang, Y. G. (2022, June). Towards transferable adversarial attacks on vision transformers. In Proceedings of the AAAI Conference on Artificial Intelligence (Vol. 36, №3, pp. 2668–2676).
  4. Kannan, H., Kurakin, A., & Goodfellow, I. (2018). Adversarial logit pairing. arXiv preprint arXiv:1803.06373.
  5. Papernot, N., & McDaniel, P. (2016). On the effectiveness of defensive distillation. arXiv preprint arXiv:1607.05113.
  6. Chen, P. Y., Sharma, Y., Zhang, H., Yi, J., & Hsieh, C. J. (2018, April). Ead: elastic-net attacks to deep neural networks via adversarial examples. In Proceedings of the AAAI conference on artificial intelligence (Vol. 32, №1).

Originally published at https://defence.ai on August 17, 2023.



Marin Ivezic

Partner @PwC — Lead OT, IoT, 5G Security | 30y red teaming & protecting critical infrastructure, telcos, cyber-physical systems, emerging tech | 5x Global CISO