July 30, 2019

Research is “Skewing up”

Over the weekend I was catching up on some reading and came about the “Deep Learning and Security Workshop (DLS 2019)“. With great interest I browsed through the agenda and read some of the papers / talks, just to find myself quite disappointed.

It seems like not much has changed since I launched this blog. In 2005, I found myself constantly disappointed with security articles and decided to outline my frustrations on this blog. That was the very initial focus of this blog. Over time it morphed more into a platform to talk about security visualization and then artificial intelligence. Today I am coming back to some of the early work of providing, hopefully constructive, feedback to some of the work out there.

The researcher paper I am looking at is about building a deep learning based malware classifier. I won’t comment on the fact that every AV company has been doing this for awhile (but learned from their early mistakes of not engineering ‘intelligent’ features). I also won’t discuss the machine learning architecture that is introduced. What I will argue is the approach that was taken and the conclusions that were drawn:

  • The paper uses a data set that has no ground truth. Which, in network security is very normal. But it needs to be taken into account. Any conclusion that is made is only relative to the traffic that the algorithm was tested, at the time of testing and under the used configuration (IDS signatures). The paper doesn’t discuss adoption or changes over time. It’s a bias that needs to be clearly taken into account.
  • The paper uses a supervised approach leveraging a deep learner. One of the consequences is that this system will have a hard time detecting zero days. It will have to be retrained regularly. Interestingly enough, we are in the same world as the anti virus industry when they do binary classification.
  • Next issue. How do we know what the system actually captures and what it does not?
    • This is where my recent rants on ‘measuring the efficacy‘ of ML algorithms comes into play. How do you measure the false negative rates of your algorithms in a real-world setting? And even worse, how do you guarantee those rates in the future?
    • If we don’t know what the system can detect (true positives), how can we make any comparative statements between algorithms? We can make a statement about this very setup and this very data set that was used, but again, we’d have to quantify the biases better.
  • In contrast to the supervised approach, the domain expert approach has a non-zero chance of finding future zero days due to the characterization of bad ‘behavior’. That isn’t discussed in the paper, but is a crucial fact.
  • The paper claims a 97% detection rate with a false positive rate of less than 1% for the domain expert approach. But that’s with domain expert “Joe”. What about if I wrote the domain knowledge? Wouldn’t that completely skew the system? You have to somehow characterize the domain knowledge. Or quantify its accuracy. How would you do that?

Especially the last two points make the paper almost irrelevant. The fact that this wasn’t validated in a larger, real-world environment is another fallacy I keep seeing in research papers. Who says this environment was representative of every environment? Overall, I think this research is dangerous and is actually portraying wrong information. We cannot make a statement that deep learning is better than domain knowledge. The numbers for detection rates are dangerous and biased, but the bias isn’t discussed in the paper.


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