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Backdoor Activation Attack: Attack Large Language Models using Activation Steering for Safety-Alignment

Haoran WangKai Shu
Nov 2023
To ensure AI safety, instruction-tuned Large Language Models (LLMs) are specifically trained to ensure alignment, which refers to making models behave in accordance with human intentions. While these models have demonstrated commendable results on various safety benchmarks, the vulnerability of their safety alignment has not been extensively studied. This is particularly troubling given the potential harm that LLMs can inflict. Existing attack methods on LLMs often rely on poisoned training data or the injection of malicious prompts. These approaches compromise the stealthiness and generalizability of the attacks, making them susceptible to detection. Additionally, these models often demand substantial computational resources for implementation, making them less practical for real-world applications. In this work, we introduce a novel attack framework, called Backdoor Activation Attack, which injects trojan steering vectors into the activation layers of LLMs. These malicious steering vectors can be triggered at inference time to steer the models toward attacker-desired behaviors by manipulating their activations. In particular, the steering vectors are generated by taking the difference between benign and malicious activations. Then, the most effective steering vector is selected and added to the forward passes of the LLMs. Our experiment results on four primary alignment tasks show that our proposed method is highly effective and adds little or no overhead to attack efficiency. Additionally, we discuss potential countermeasures against such activation attacks. Our code and data are available at https://email-haoran-for-link. Warning: this paper contains content that can be offensive or upsetting.
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