Who’s afraid of adversarial transferability?

Ziv Katzir, Yuval Elovici

arXiv preprint arXiv:2105.00433, 2021

Adversarial transferability, namely the ability of adversarial perturbations to simultaneously fool multiple learning models, has long been the “big bad wolf” of adversarial machine learning. Successful transferability-based attacks requiring no prior knowledge of the attacked model’s parameters or training data have been demonstrated numerous times in the past, implying that machine learning models pose an inherent security threat to real-life systems. However, all of the research performed in this area regarded transferability as a probabilistic property and attempted to estimate the percentage of adversarial examples that are likely to mislead a target model given some predefined evaluation set. As a result, those studies ignored the fact that real-life adversaries are often highly sensitive to the cost of a failed attack. We argue that overlooking this sensitivity has led to an exaggerated perception of the transferability threat, when in fact real-life transferability-based attacks are quite unlikely. By combining theoretical reasoning with a series of empirical results, we show that it is practically impossible to predict whether a given adversarial example is transferable to a specific target model in a black-box setting, hence questioning the validity of adversarial transferability as a real-life attack tool for adversaries that are sensitive to the cost of a failed attack.